Skip to Main Content

Ready, Set, Research

This guide is geared toward students who need to prepare research papers and/or speeches for college courses.

Why Is Terminology So Important?

Once you have formulated some preliminary research questions, you can begin to search for answers.   Most research will begin with you typing some words into a box to begin finding information. But what words should you use?

Formal search tools like library catalogs and research databases often use a controlled vocabulary – formally established subject headings or descriptors. Below is a great video from the University of Washington describing the importance of controlled vocabulary and providing some great hints on how to identify the the most effective search terms for your topic. 

How Do I Begin?

I.  Break down your focused topic and identify the main concepts involved.

 Sample Focused Topic: How can stem cells be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease? 

Concept one

stem cells

Concept two


Concept three

Alzheimer’s disease


II. Brainstorm synonyms for each concept.

When brainstorming synonyms, think about how other people might describe these concepts. What words would a reporter use? How about a scientist or doctor? Often using more scholarly terms will retrieve more scholarly resources.  Think of exact synonyms, as well as slightly narrower (more specific) or broader (more general) terms. 

stem cells

stem cells; embryonic stem cells; neural stem cells


treatment; cure; therapy; benefits;

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s  disease; dementia, diseases; disorders


III. Perform some keyword searches on your favorite databases to identify that database's vocabulary

This strategy allows you to work backwards: find relevant articles by performing a search using the terms you already know. Once you find some articles that are on topic, examine them to identify the subject terms/descriptors connected to these articles. This is an efficient way to figure out the "lingo" of any given database.