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Information Literacy Guide: Defining keywords


After completing this SECTION, you will be able to:

  • define your need for information,
  • think critically about your topic and need,
  • read about your topic and start making notes,
  • define keywords by:
    • drawing a mind map,
    • selecting broader and narrower subject terms,
    • identifying different spellings or words
  • understand that the financial cost of information is an important issue.


Other Spellings

Look for other spellings of words during your reading on the topic. Certain words are spelled differently in British English vs. American English, for example:

British English             American English      
"s" in specialisation "z" in specialization
"ou" in colour "o" in color
"s" in organisation "z" in organization


There are many more of these. If your search terms include any such words, you will need to search on all the different variables to make sure you don't miss any important and relevant information.

Defining keywords

Once you have read generally about your topic, you should have a better idea of the keywords under which you will probably find information about your topic. So, before you can start your search, you should define your keywords accurately. The following steps will assist you in defining keywords:

Drawing a Mindmap

Write down everything you know about your topic as well as what you would like to know!!! Our topic, for illustrative purposes, is "Aids in the workplace".

Identify keywords, concepts and terms on this topic. This will help you to identify areas that need more searching than others. Your mind map might look something like this:


Broader and Narrower Terms

Is there a broader or narrower subject that might include your topic, question or problem? Remember our topic is "Aids in the workplace."

A broader subject might cover things like: A narrower subject might be:                           
  • immunological deficiency syndromes
  • Virus-induced immunosuppression
  • HIV infections
  • infectious diseases
  • AIDS
  • work safety
  • cost of AIDS in the workplace
  • prevalence of AIDS in the workplace

You must identify as many as possible such broader and narrower terms. They will help you when you do your search. Using different words will retrieve different information, therefore use all possible options when you search for information.

After searches were done on the Library on-line catalogue on some of the words identified above, the following was found:

Search Request                                           No. of Records   
Words= (immunological deficiency syndromes) 9
Words= (aids disease) 444
Words= (aids workplace) 15
Words= (hiv infections) 153
Words= (hiv) 463
Words= (aids) 889


It is clear that you get different results (varying number of "hits") from different words used in the searches. That is why it is so important to identify and follow up every possible word related to your topic. Remember to keep any printouts of your searches, make notes of the resources found and keep information for your bibliographic records already at this early stage.