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Selecting key-words

03 September 2021

Selecting appropriate key-words

Key-words are very useful in your studies, because if you have a good selection, they can help nail down a good proportion of the literature that you will need to read during your studies. Moreover, if you have the best selection of key-words, then you can set up some automated notifications for when new items are published. The only problem then is pulling together the correct key-words. 

When you submit a conference abstract, or a paper for publication, you will also be faced by a demand for key-words. This is when I often draw a blank. What will be the appropriate key-words for my study? I can often think of one or two, but regularly journals want at least five. 

A method for finding key-words

Here is my method for finding appropriate key-words. It’s quick, but it does require a piece of free-ware:VOSviewer, which for me has become an invaluable research tool.

  1. Go to yourliterature databaseof choice (i.e. Web of Science, Scopus, PubMed, Dimensions.)
  2. Search for documents using the key-words that you are sure are appropriate
  3. Constrain the results to ~500 documents. 
    1. You can either do this with the search date (e.g. the most recent 5 years)
    2. Or you can simply take the first 500 documents that are found
  4. Download these ~500 documents in a tab delimited text file.
  5. In VOSviewer
    1. Press the ‘create’ button
    2. Create a map based on bibliographic data
    3. Read data from bibliographic database files
    4. Select the file that you downloaded in the appropriate tab
    5. Type of analysis
      1. Co-occurrence
      2. All keywords (you can choose here)
      3. Full counting
    6. You should see the total number of key-words in your downloaded file now
      1. Change the minimum number of occurrences of a key-word so that you have ~100 results (again you can choose what suits you)
    7. Press finish

You should end up with a network like the one below. Here I have used the key-words “invasive” and “fish” (following previous exampleshereandhere). 

In VOSviewer, you can highlight any one of these key-words and see exactly what combination they have been used in. I have selected examples that occur 10 or more times in my downloaded file. This means that I can be fairly sure that these are relatively common key-words to use in combination with the ones I know are good.

The larger the panel in this network, the more frequently the word is used. This should help you when you select your own key-words. For example, even though I had used the keywords “invasive” and “fish” to generate this network, one of the first things I noticed is that the term “invasive species” is far more common than “invasive”. Hence, the first thing I should do is to change the first of my key-words.

Some of the key-words relate to specific taxonomic groups. Others include the habitat in which the fish were sampled. Now I have a shortlist from which to pick the remaining 5 key-words that I need in order to submit my abstract or manuscript. Once you’ve made your selection, you can go back to your literature database, add this combination of key-words into a search and see what comes out. If you’ve done it right, you should see some familiar papers on similar topics to your own. 

If you found this article useful, then read more helpful tips about writing and publishing in these free OA online books written for biologists:

How to write a PhD in Biological Sciences

How to publish in Biological Sciences

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