How to Choose and Use Keywords in Research Papers

by Elizabeth Oommen George
How to choose and use keywords in research papers

Academic writing is vital for PhD student and researchers, and identifying appropriate keywords in research papers is a crucial part of the process. However, not many academics understand the importance of keywords in research papers and why you need to get this right. When used well, keywords in scientific papers ensure more accurate indexing and allow search engines to find your work from the large amounts of information available online.

With more research articles and journals available to researchers, it is important to choose and use keywords in research papers effectively to maximize the reach and impact of your research article by making it easier to discover, access, and reference by a diverse audience. In this article, we’ll discuss how to choose and effectively use keywords in research papers to improve your visibility and help you reach your intended audience.

How to choose keywords in research papers

Choosing the right keywords in research papers is critical because the quality of online search results is directly related to the quality of the keywords used. A well-chosen keyword can help your paper get discovered, while a poorly chosen keyword can lead to your paper being overlooked. Here are some simple steps to choose the right keywords for your research paper.1

Understand the research question or topic

Know the central theme of your research paper and write down keywords that are most relevant and will capture the essence of your work. Examining your research question or topic closely can also help you identify keywords in research papers that are frequently used in your field of study.

Check standard author guidelines

Most reputed journals mention specific instructions regarding the number and length of keywords in research papers. Be sure to check the author guidelines carefully as some even suggest that authors choose from a set of predetermined keywords for scientific papers covering specific research topics.

Create a pool of relevant keywords

When shortlisting keywords in research papers, consider your target audience and keep in mind what they typically use to search for articles on topics like yours. A good idea would be to use phrases or word clusters that are used repeatedly in your manuscript as readers will also likely be using these to search online. Add synonyms and different phrases that describe your concept (avoid newly coined terms or unusual abbreviations) to increase the chances of your research being discovered. You can also ask your supervisor or consult experts in your field to identify the most relevant keywords in research paper.

Pick specific, 2-4-word phrases as keywords

Single words often lead to false matches or are misconstrued so it’s advised to choose keywords that are phrases with 2-4 words, and not longer. It’s important also to be specific when choosing keywords in research papers to ensure your work stands out. For example, if the paper is about leg pain, use alternative and more specific phrases like leg cramps, spasms in the leg, or muscular leg pain to help your work stand out from generalized online searches on pain.

Use optimized keywords in research papers

Maximize your potential visibility by using optimized keywords in research papers. For example, authors writing on medical and health-related topics can find help with keywords and terms by looking through the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) thesaurus. The MeSH thesaurus also includes effective and popular keywords and terms that are used in PubMed and other databases.2 Similarly, online search engines also index scholarly literature across an array of disciplines.

How to include keywords in research papers

Once you have identified the most relevant keywords for your scientific papers, the next step is to include them effectively. Optimizing your academic writing with keywords is a straightforward process that requires some attention to detail. Here are some tips on how to include keywords in research paper and what to avoid.

Include keywords in title and abstract

The title and abstract are the first sections people read when searching for scholarly articles and understanding the relevance of your work. Include keywords in research paper titles and add the most important keywords in abstract of your research paper. This will help search engines and academic databases quickly identify the central theme of your research paper and categorize your work correctly. However, note that some journals do not advise using keywords that overlap with words used in your research paper title.2

Add keywords across all sections

Try to use keywords strategically in all sections of your research paper, including the introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. However, while adding keywords in research papers, ensure they read naturally and are in context to maintain the quality of your academic writing. Subheads are another good way to use keywords as they allow readers to quickly scan your paper. Creating descriptive subheadings that include the main keywords in research papers work well to guide readers smoothly through your article.

Use variations of main keywords

Apart from the list of shortlisted keywords for your topic, make sure you also use variations of your keywords in research papers to ensure it is easily found by readers. Using synonyms and related terms that describe the same concept can help increase the visibility of your paper in online searches while ensuring the main keywords in scientific papers don’t seem spammy and make your writing seem repetitive.

Refer to highly cited works on similar topics

Check relevant journal databases or conduct a quick online search to see how keywords have been used in previously published papers in your field. If you can find the right papers for the keywords you are searching for, you know that it has used keywords effectively. This may give you an idea not only on how and where to use keywords in research papers but may also help you formulate or add to your chosen keywords.

Avoid irrelevant keywords and overstuffing

Finally, it is important to use only relevant keywords in research papers as irrelevant keywords can mislead readers and result in your paper being excluded from relevant searches. Also make sure you are not using too many keywords in research papers. Force-fitting keywords could make your writing seem cluttered and confusing; your work may also be penalized for keyword stuffing by online search engines. It’s best to stick to a few specific, relevant keywords that accurately reflect your research and use them strategically to ensure your article is coherent and engaging for readers.

Identifying effective keywords for research papers must be a priority for researchers and not an afterthought in their manuscript writing and publishing journey. The use of right keywords not only offers readers easier access to your paper through online searches, but it also significantly increases the frequency of citations. Therefore, be sure to choose and use keywords in your research paper with care. All the best!


What are keywords in a research paper?

Keywords are specific terms or phrases that encapsulate the essence of a research paper’s content. They represent the main ideas, concepts, and themes addressed in the paper. These terms aid in categorization, indexing, and searching for relevant articles in academic databases. Typically located in the abstract or article header, keywords provide a quick overview of the paper’s focus, helping researchers and readers gauge its relevance to their interests.

What is the purpose of having keywords in research papers?

Identifying keywords is vital for effective research because it enhances discoverability. Researchers use keywords to navigate vast databases efficiently, ensuring they find relevant papers on their topic. Precise keywords ensure that articles align closely with a researcher’s needs, saving time and effort. Well-chosen keywords improve a paper’s visibility, increasing its chances of being found and cited. Accurate keyword selection improves the dissemination of knowledge and facilitates collaboration among scholars by facilitating access to related works.

Why is identifying keywords important for research?

Keywords serve several key purposes in research papers. Firstly, they aid in information retrieval. By including relevant terms, researchers make their work easily discoverable by peers. Secondly, keywords enhance the paper’s visibility, increasing its chances of being cited and referenced. Thirdly, keywords establish a common language for researchers within a particular field, facilitating communication. Lastly, they offer a concise snapshot of the paper’s core themes, assisting readers in quickly determining the paper’s applicability to their own work or interests.


  1. George, E. Identifying keywords for scientific papers: A simple 5-step guide. Researcher.Life Blog. Available online at
  2. Herron, C. How to Choose the Best Keywords for Your Research Manuscript. Redwood Ink. Available online at

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