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Search terms

Finding the right information comes down to knowing the right key words and phrases.

There are a few basic tools you should get together before you begin the process of finding and reviewing literature. One of the most basic is a good list of words and phrases that you can use to search for literature online, particularly in a library database.

You may be enrolled at a university which gives you access to large databases of journal articles, or you can get started with a basic search for literature using other tools, such as Google Scholar. But to find anything, you need a good list of search terms. As well as the most obvious ones, you might find more by using a thesaurus to find synonyms.


On my blog, I’m writing about the problem of plastics in the oceans. To start a search for useful literature on this topic, I first needed to expand my list of words. You can see how I began on this blog post.

Your turn

Think carefully about the words and phrases that might best help you find the information you need to conduct a review of literature on your topic of interest. Consider this example from a research student at UOW:

Topic of study: how hailstones affect buildings (roofing and cladding)

Search terms: natural hailstones, roofing materials, dent resistance, high velocity impact, bake hardening, terminal velocity measurement, kinetic energy, hailstorms, high strength steel, stiffness, boundary conditions, finite element analysis.

  • What is your topic and which search terms did you try first?
  • How long did it take you to find something useful?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong