To publish is to make known. By publishing research papers, journals make research known to their readers. However, most researchers read only a few journals regularly. Typically, these are the journals that focus on topics most relevant to a researcher: those working on rheumatology, for example, may read the Journal of Rheumatology, while those working on environmental economics may read the Journal of Environmental Economics. In addition to these specialist journals, most researchers also read (or at least look at the contents page of) one or two multidisciplinary journals such as Nature or Science. Researchers read these journals to keep themselves updated. However, papers that are relevant to a particular researcher may appear in journals that the researcher does not see regularly or may not see at all. This is where search engines and indexing services prove useful—and they need keywords to do their job.
A keyword is a key to information. Keywords point researchers to relevant papers—papers that may not come to a researcher’s attention in the normal course of her or his reading. Relevant papers may escape notice because they are published in journals that a particular researcher does not read regularly. And even when such papers are published in journals that the researcher does read regularly, he or she may not realize that those papers are relevant because their titles may fail to indicate their relevance. Let us take an example to see why keywords are useful. A paper titled ‘New approaches to the treatment of diabetes’ describes how some medicinal herbs can help in treating the disease. However, the title does not mention this, nor does it mention the names of those herbs. Suitable keywords for such a paper will include the scientific names of those herbs, and a search for any of those names will lead other researchers to that paper.
Therefore, do not use words or terms in the title as keywords: the function of keywords is to supplement the information given in the title. Words in the title are automatically included in indexes, and keywords serve as additional pointers. Lastly, how should you pick keywords? Here are some suggestions to consider while selecting journal keywords:
- If the paper focuses on a particular region (geographic, climatic, etc.), use that as a keyword (semi-arid tropics, the polar region, coniferous forests).
- Consider the experimental material and techniques, which may suggest suitable keywords (HPLC, alkaloids, x-ray crystallography, animal dung).
- Check whether potential applications can serve as keywords (organic farming, treatment of cancer, long-term preservation, energy efficiency).
- Use specific phenomena or issues as keywords (climate change, air pollution, sustainable development, genetic engineering).
- Do not use words or phrases from the title as keywords.
You may find this related article helpful: How to write an effective title and abstract and choose appropriate keywords