This blog is by Deirdre Andre and Barbara Lancho-Barrantes from the University of Leeds Library Research Support Team. Thanks to Nick Sheppard for his support while writing this post.

Author keywords play a vital role in the communication of research. Research shows that selection of effective keywords can maximise the chance of publication success, leading to increased readership, citation counts and research impact.   

What are keywords and why are they used? 

Keywords are individual words or phrases chosen by an author to summarise the core concepts of their research output in a few words. Search engines, databases and journal websites, and citation indexing services use the keyword list provided by the authors to categorise topics and make them discoverable. Author keywords direct interested readers to relevant articles that may not otherwise come to their attention. For example, the paper, Wikimedia and universities: contributing to the global commons in the Age of Disinformation is 15 pages long. However, from the five keywords used to summarise the paper: Wikipedia; Wikimedia; Wikidata; information literacy; research impact; strategy,  readers can find and understand the context of the paper. 

Top tips for choosing effective author keywords 

  1. Check and adhere to the number and length of keywords the publisher of your target journal will allow and use the maximum number of keywords allowed. 
  1. Avoid using keywords that are either too short to render the search unspecific or too long, which may result in your article being filtered out by searches. For example, if your research is on diabetes in children, using too broad words such as “blood glucose” or “insulin” may result in your paper being lost in the sea of papers on diabetes.  It may better to use more terms such as “juvenile diabetes” and “paediatric diabetes”. 
  1. Analyse the most popular keywords used to describe research in your area. Research shows that using these keywords will increase the visibility of your research.  
  1. Be selective when duplicating words from your title and abstract. You can only pick a few keywords so don’t waste them!  Consider choosing keywords that frequently appear in references or in the article itself. Research shows that this will help maximise your citation count. 
  1. Choose keywords that contain specific terminology linked to your research area as it will make it make it easier to find. For example, if you are publishing research into Covid, specific terminology such as SARS-CoV-2 will make it more discoverable by interested researchers. 
  1. Avoid introducing new keywords that are not well known or used by your research community. Research shows that this can reduce the discoverability of your article. For example a search for the more recently coined phrase “common data elements” will find few results. Using the more widely accepted phrase “core data sets” will find a larger number of relevant articles.  
  1. While it may be appropriate to your subject area, research shows that using country names as keywords selection can limit the reach of your articles beyond readers specifically interested in research about that country.  

Further support