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Choosing Effective Keywords

  • Most journals require authors to select 4-8 keywords (or phrases) to accompany a manuscript to facilitate online searches
  • In biomedical fields, MeSH terms are a good ‘common vocabulary’ to draw from
  • Try Google Scholar to see what terms are most common in your field

As the volume of research output and the number of journals expand, identifying relevant studies in the literature is becoming increasingly challenging. To facilitate online article searches, most journals require authors to select 4-8 keywords (or phrases) to accompany a manuscript. Keywords may also be used to match a specific editor to a manuscript and to identify peer reviewers with related research interests. To maximize your manuscript’s chances of a well-matched review and readership, here are three considerations when choosing key terms:

Your target journal’s instructions for authors

Guidelines for the number and type of keywords may vary between journals. In certain cases, the editors will even provide a list of preferred terms, and clinical publications will often specifically request keywords drawn from the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s collection of Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). The use of MeSH terms ensures that a “common vocabulary” is applied to index biomedical content, facilitating literature searches. In other cases, a journal may specify particular keywords that should not be used, such as words already included in your manuscript’s title.

Your title, abstract, and main text

If your target journal does not exclude the use of keywords that are also employed in the title, you should seriously consider including this type of keyword. In particular, key terms that are shared with your manuscript title and/or abstract can help to increase the visibility of your study in article searches due to the algorithm used by many search engines. Crafting an effective, representative title is therefore critical. Additionally, search terms should accurately reflect the content of your main text; avoid words used only once or twice in the main text or not at all.

Your target audience

Your readers will likely search for terms that are commonly used in your field and related areas. You should thus avoid using esoteric terminology, such as an unusual abbreviation or a newly coined name for a technique, as keywords. However, very general search terms (such as “cell” or “PCR”), which may make it difficult for a researcher to find your article amid many other hits and for a journal to select an appropriate editor and peer reviewers, should also be omitted from the keyword list. The same is true for abbreviations that may have multiple meanings (such as “PLC,” which could stand for “phospholipase C” or “peptide-loading complex”). To identify potentially effective keywords, consider using Google Scholar or another engine to search for different commonly used, yet specific, terms and assessing how relevant the results are to your own work.

See our series of tips on using Google Scholar for more information.

We hope that we have provided useful guidance on choosing effective keywords for your manuscript. If you have any questions or comments, please contact us at [email protected]. Best wishes!

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