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Creating and formatting Keywords for paper submission and communication

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Creating and formatting Keywords for paper submission and communication

Let’s say this straightaway: keywords are the most neglected part of a manuscript. They are often hastily put together right at the end and often only to meet the submission criteria. However, this is unfortunate, because selecting keywords after some careful deliberation can bring you multiple benefits as a researcher trying to get noticed in your academic community, not least by making your paper more discoverable.

This article explains the importance of keywords and gives you some tips on how to choose the right keywords, what to avoid as keywords, and, once you have chosen the appropriate keywords, how to format them.

Importance of keywords

Well-chosen keywords bring your paper to the attention of those who are actively looking for information on the topic of your paper. For all you know, those people will not only read your paper but may even cite it. By treating keywords as a mere formality or even a chore, you are doing injustice to your paper. (Read more here about how keywords – and other elements of a paper – can help improve its discoverability: Maximise discoverability of your research through Titles, Abstracts and Keywords)

Developing keywords

a. Think of synonyms for words used in the title

Keywords used in the title are automatically indexed, so using terms found in the title as keywords is a wasted opportunity. Instead, think of synonyms which make good keywords.

For example…

If you have used a botanical name as part of the title of the paper (e.g. Zea mays or Oryza sativa), then the corresponding common name will be a good keyword (e.g. maize or rice).

If ‘renewable energy’ is part of your title, you might consider ‘sustainable energy’ as a keyword.

A few more examples are ‘adrenaline’ and ‘epinephrine’, and ‘weight training’ and ‘strength training’.

b. Think of terms that expand or narrow down the scope of your paper

For instance…

If your paper is about vertebrates, consider whether ‘mammals’ or even ‘primates’ are appropriate as keywords.

If ‘design of blades’ is a phrase you have used in the title, ‘wind turbines’ might work as a keyword.

c. Use ‘keyphrases’ rather than ‘keywords’

Understand that keywords do not have to be single words. In fact, single words – because they are too broad – rarely make good keywords. It is best to use two- or three-word phrases as keywords.

‘Monsoon’ is too broad: How about ‘southwest monsoon’ or ‘northeast monsoon’? 

‘Fitness’ is somewhat vague: phrases such as ‘Levels of fitness’, ‘Cardiovascular fitness’ or ‘Measuring fitness levels’ would be more effective and targeted.

d. Avoid using abbreviations as keywords

In general, abbreviations do not make good keywords, because a given abbreviation or acronym may be used for different terms depending on the domain.

For example, SDI can mean ‘strategic defence initiative’ but also stand for ‘selective dissemination of information’.

Testing your keywords

Instead of settling for the first terms that come to your mind, it is a good idea to test them out. Paste each keyword or multiple keywords into the search box of several search engines and scan the results. If most of the search results are relevant, the keywords are fine; if not, you need to revise them.

Formatting the keywords to match the journal’s style

Before you submit your manuscript, examine the style specifications of your target journal to determine how exactly the keywords are to be presented, because styles can differ across journals.

  • Journals do not even agree on whether it should be ‘keywords’ or ‘key words’ (one word or two).
  • The formatting can differ – Keywords or KEYWORDS (all capitals), bold or normal, italics or normal.
  • So too the punctuation that follows (usually a colon or space).
  • Notice the capitalisation: do all keywords start with a capital letter or is only the first keyword capitalized?
  • Lastly, check the journal’s style guide to see how the keywords are separated: with commas, semicolons, bullets or only spaces.
  • Some journals even show keywords as a list, each keyword occupying a separate line. However, you need not do that in your manuscript — you could use spaces and leave the final formatting to the journal.

Tip: For specifications about the keywords, check the Information for Authors page of your journal’s website, or simply look up published articles in the journal.

End note

Keywords are the ‘key’ to wider and easier access to your paper; choose them with care.


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