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Information Literacy: 02. Generate Search Terms

Strategies used to incorporate research skills for the College of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Management, the Pacific Northwest College of Arts, and the School of Computing and Informations Sciences.

Generating Great Search Terms

Boolean Searches

Developing Search Terms and Helpful Tips

1. Examine your research question and identify the words that represent the main ideas. These "main idea" words can be your first search terms.

Research Question: “How do environmental protests impact deforestation?”

2. Generate synonyms, related ideas, and alternative forms for each main idea word.


  • Synonyms: ecological, green, conservation
  • Related ideas: watersheds, wildlife
  • Forms: environment, environmentalists, environments


  • Synonyms: activism, demonstrations, direct action
  • Related ideas: legislation, Greenpeace, eco-terrorism
  • Forms: protest, protesters, protesting 


  • Synonyms: logging, clear-cutting, forest management
  • Related ideas: forest fires, old-growth, bio diversity 
  • Forms: deforesting, deforested, deforest

Whether you are searching the Internet or a database, generating effective search terms can save time, yield relevant results, and provide an opportunity to explore various perspectives on a specific topic. Generating search terms is a dynamic and iterative process. As you search, you may find it necessary to modify or add new search terms to your list.

Before searching, Identify keywords related to your topic...
(Unsure of your topic? Check out this resource.)

  • Develop your initial research question.
  • Use only essential words from your research question for search terms.
  • If you don't have enough search terms from your title, you may need to rework your initial research question.
  • Brainstorm keywords with your instructor, librarian, or friend. 
  • Find pictures related to your topic, then describe the picture.
  • Use encyclopedias, textbooks, articles, webpages, thesauruses, etc. for background information to generate search terms.
  • Draw a concept map using key concepts.

While searching...

  • Keep a written list of search terms you use.
  • As you come across useful research or trade articles, use terms they use. Specialized terms to their field of research will likely be used that you may not have considered.
  • Add to the list of search terms to track what you use, what works or what didn't. This also helps visualize your search history.
  • Look at the bibliography/reference list found at the end of books and articles. What terms are used in the titles?
  • Do not use natural language. Databases use key words and terms to search. Natural language uses unnecessary words that often bog down of kills the search.
  • Search Broadly: Use the single most important term related to your topic. This is helpful when finding basic background information.
  • Limit to Specific Info: Combine key concepts, separated by the word "AND". This is helpful when looking for specific information related to your claim or thesis.
  • Too Many Irrelevant Results? Add more search terms.
  • Too Few Relevant Results? Change or remove some search terms.
Willamette University

Willamette University Libraries

Mark O. Hatfield Library
900 State Street.
Salem Oregon 97301
Pacific Northwest College of Art Library
511 NW Broadway.
Portland Oregon 97209