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Universiteitsbibliotheek – LibGuides

Training ISS premaster Academic Skills: Search terms


Think of search terms (in English and, if need be, also in Dutch) for the different elements of your search query. Use the information on this page if you need help. Search terms can be keywords, synonyms and translations (most search systems are in English).

You can adjust your search terms based on your search results until you are satisfied with the results.

NB you do not have to find search terms for all your elements, sometimes it is even better to leave an element out. For example if you are looking for effects of an intervention. After all, you often do not know what they are yet!).

Write down your search terms.

Generating search terms

Thinking up the right search terms is one of the major parts of your search strategy.

Go looking for corresponding terms for each part of your search question. Don't forget:

  • ‚Äčsynonyms (house / dwelling)
  • broader terms (university / higher education)
  • narrower terms (children / toddlers)
  • related terms (training / coaching)
  • antonyms (terms with opposite meanings, such as parent/child or poverty/wealth
  • persons and organisations of importance to your subject
  • terms indicating space and time (for instance eras, centuries, names of places, countries)
  • avoid bias in your search terms, it might colour the outcome of your search

And also think of the different word forms:

  • singular/plural
  • verb conjugations
  • nouns/adjectives
  • different spelling (labor / labour or organisation / organization)
  • abbreviations
  • translations into languages which are relevant to your subject and discipline

Correct your search terms along the way. If you do so from the very start, you will soon see which (new) terms produce the right results, and which terms don't. Repeat this method as long as it takes.

You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Use resources:

  • words from an exploratory search from, for instance, Wikipedia or handbooks
  • words from earlier found sources, for instance words from the title or abstract or keywords given by the author
  • dictionaries
  • thesauri (overviews of selected words or concepts and their mutual relations within a particular field of interest or discipline, often included in large, subject specific databases)


Take for example the search question from step 1:

I am looking for information on treatment of eating disorders for boys and men, in publications starting from the year 2000.

You can think of the following search terms:

  • ‚Äčtreatment, therapy, intervention, psychotherapy
  • eating disorders, bulimia, anorexia (nervosa), disordered eating, eating attitudes. But be careful! If the purpose of your research is to find all treatments that are available in the field of eating disorders (also the ones you do not mention in your search), it might be a better idea to leave this element out of your search question. If this results in too much sources, you might consider rewriting your search question into a more focused one aiming at specific treatments.).
  • male(s), men, man, boy(s)