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Composing a Search: Key Terms

Interactive Guide to demonstrate how to compose a search and test it on a sample of library databases.

First - The Question

The first step in creating an efficient search is to identify the research topic.

If you have an assignment topic you can analyse this to identify the Key Terms.

If you don't have a topic, carefully consider what it is you are trying to research.   Write this down in the form of a question, being as precise as you can.

For example:

What caused the fall of the Roman Empire?

is not nearly as useful a starting point as

What role did the Germanic Magister militum play in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire after the year 359?


Key Terms

Once you have a clearly stated topic you need to analyse it looking for key terms.

Apart from prepositions and conjunctions the topic will include four types of words.

Content words

These tell you what the main focus of the topic is. They are usually nouns or noun phrases. Content words are the key terms.

Limiting words

These restrict the topic to a limited part of the field. They will vary according to your area of study but might include phrases like:

  • in the final years of WW2
  • in businesses of less than 100 employees
  • in temperate regions of Australia
  • among school children from rural areas

Limiting words are also key terms.

Exclusion words

Like limiting words these are used to restrict a topic.  However they are used differently when Boolean logic is applied.

Task words

These tell you what you have to do. They help to decide the style, emphasis and structure of your work. Task words are not usually included in a search.

An Example

Consider this example.
Critically evaluate the statement:
In Western Australia, adolescents have not got the message, drugs, other than alcohol, and driving do not mix.

Task words

Critically and evaluate are the task words. These words give the message that you are being asked to examine the case for and against the topic.

Content words

The focus of your topic is an examination of whether the message using drugs and driving do not mix is being heeded.

Limiting words

Your work will be limited to a discussion of adolescents in Western Australia.

Exclusion words

You will not consider how well it is understood that alcohol and driving do not mix.


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