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Search Smarter: Finding information for the Health Sciences: Step 1: Keywords

A guide on how to find information for assignments and research in the Health arena.

Short Example

Example Assignment Question:

Hand washing plays a major role in infection control within hospitals. Discuss.

The keywords in the above example are:

Hand hygiene

Hospitals

Infection control

Where do I use keywords?

Where to use keywords:

• Library catalogue

• Databases

• Internet

What are keywords?

Keywords are the main words, concepts or phrases that outline what your topic is about. Concepts are meanings within your field of study.  These are also called content words.

To find information for your assignment in library catalogues, databases or on the Internet, you will need to decide what words you are going to use to search with. 

To be able to do a good search, you need to analyse your assignment question. Identify what keywords best describe your assignment question. 

Words like discuss, outline or correlation are not keywords.  They are Task Words, and describe what you must do in your assignment. 

Longer example

Task words are usually verbs and they tell you what to do to complete your assignment.

You need to identify these words, because you will need to follow these instructions to pass the assignment.  As you research and write your assignment, check these words occasionally to make sure you are still doing what you have been asked to do.

Here are some definitions of different academic task words.  Make sure you know exactly what you need to do for your assignment.

Don't try to use them in your research - they aren't things to find, only things to do.

The task words from our sample question are:

Handwashing has been shown to dramatically reduce the spread of viruses. Summarise the role handwashing plays in public health and discuss appropriate methods for implementing a handwashing regime in one of the following industries: hospitality, child care or patient care.

  • Summarise means to "describe something concisely"
  • Discuss means to "consider and offer an interpretation or evaluation of something; or give a judgment on the value of arguments for and against something"

So, you would need to give a short description of what handwashing is all about, and then offer an evaluation of different handwashing regimes.

The content words are the "meat" of the question - these are things you can research.

Handwashing has been shown to dramatically reduce the spread of viruses. Summarise the role handwashing plays in public health and discuss appropriate methods for implementing a handwashing regime in one of the following industries: hospitality, child care or patient care.

You will often be asked to talk about "the role" something plays or "methods" and "implementations" - but you can't really research these things.

You need to find the keywords - the most concrete concepts - and search for those.  The information you find about the concrete terms will tell you about the "roles" and "methods", but they probably won't use those words exactly.

One of the core skills of academic research is learning to extrapolate:  to find the connections in the information you can find that will help you answer the questions which don't have clear, cut-and-dry answers in the books and articles.

So, the core keywords/concepts to research are:

  • handwashing
  • "public health"
  • handwashing regime(s)
  • hospitality (industry)
  • child care (industry)
  • patient care (industry)

Limiting words keep you focused on a particular area, and stop you from trying to research everything in the history of mankind.

They could limit you by:

  • Time (you may be asked to focus on the last 5 years, or the late 20th Century, for example)
  • Place (you may be asked to focus on Australia, or Queensland, or South-East Asia)
  • People groups (such as "women over the age of 50" or "people from low socio-economic backgrounds" or "Australians of Asian descent")
  • Extent (you are only to look at a particular area, or the details you believe are most relevant or appropriate).

Handwashing has been shown to dramatically reduce the spread of viruses. Summarise the role handwashing plays in public health and discuss appropriate methods for implementing a handwashing regime in one of the following industries: hospitality, child care or patient care.

In this example, you have two limits:

  • "Appropriate methods" - this means you don't have to look at every method, just a few of the most appropriate ones.
  • "In one of the following industries" - you only look at whatever is relevant to one industry chosen from the list.

Sometimes it can help to add your own limits.  With health sciences, you almost always limit your research to the last five or six years.  You could specifically look at the Australian context.  You may decide to focus on the private sector within that industry.

Sometimes an assignment task will give you phrases or sentences that aren't part of the task at all:  they exist to give you some context.

These can be ignored when you do your research, but you should read over them occasionally as you are writing your assignment.  They help you know what the lecturer was thinking about (and wanted you to think about) when they set that task.

Handwashing has been shown to dramatically reduce the spread of viruses.  Summarise the role handwashing plays in public health and discuss appropriate methods for implementing a handwashing regime in one of the following industries: hospitality, child care or patient care.

You don't have to do anything with the first sentence of this question - but it does get you to think specifically about the "spread of viruses" - something that isn't mentioned in the task itself.

Obviously, whoever wrote the task wants you to think about the spread of viruses.

It is easy to get distracted and go off on tangents when doing your research.  Use the context words to help you keep your focus where it should be.

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