Keywords and Indexing: helping readers find your article

Keywords are an important element in the discoverability and visibility of your paper. Therefore, you should choose your keywords carefully to increase your paper’s retrieval in Internet search engines by readers interested in topics related to your paper. Keywords should include all the essential terms related to your research. To easily identify these essential terms, ask “What is this paper about?” and “What would I search for to locate this paper?” 

Some journals require that the keywords be included in the title of the paper, whereas others say that keywords should not appear in the title and that they should rather complement the title. Biomedical journals may also require that keywords be selected from the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) list of standard vocabulary terms that are indexed in the Thesaurus of the American National Library of Medicine. Other standard word lists also exist for other fields. These include GeoRef, ERIC Thesaurus, PsycInfo, ChemWeb, and BIOSIS Search Guide.

Single terms and short subject phrases are acceptable as keywords. Long, descriptive phrases and sentences are generally discouraged. Abbreviations and acronyms should be spelled out. If the article is focused on a particular geographic area, consider using that as a keyword as well. Test out your keywords in the search engines of your discipline to see if you can find articles with a similar topic to that of your study.

Avoid the following when selecting keywords:

  • Very general terms such as “bone” or “HIV”
  • Words that do not appear in the main text
  • New words
  • Old terms that are not used in the field any more

Some journals have a minimum and maximum requirement for keywords, often ranging from 5 to 12. As always, read the author guidelines of your target journal carefully to ensure that keyword requirements are met.

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