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Literature search: 3. Search terms

Overall guide for literature search

From research question to key concepts

After the orientation phase you will have a clearer picture of the scope of your topic. Now, you can frame your topic or research question to clarify the aspects of your research and to formulate key concepts.

Example: Identifing key concepts

The first step in analysing your topic is to identify the keywords, or concepts, that make up your topic. Key concepts are the core words that describe, and are unique, to your topic. You will use these key concepts to formulate search terms to help you find appropriate literature.

Let's look at an example of a research topic to see how to break it down into key concepts.

Topic : Investigating people's behaviour on social media in South Africa

What are the main concepts?

There are three main concepts in this topic:

  • social media
  • behaviour
  • South Africa

Why do you think the words investigating and people were not included as concepts?

Words like investigating, people, role, impact, identify, and so forth are not used as concepts, as they tend to influence the relevance of the search results negatively.

Why do you think the word in was not used as a key concept?

"In" is a stopword. Stopwords are such commonly used words that they do not contribute meaningfully to the quality of the search strategy and the search results. The most common stopwords are: of, on, the, a, an, do, in, if, which, etc. 

(Source: Unisa, Libguide - identifying keywords)

Selecting keywords based on your research question