A quick guide on how to create keywords for a research paper

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A quick guide on how to create keywords for a research paper

While writing your paper, you might find yourself spending a considerable amount of time on crafting an attractive title and creating a comprehensive yet concise abstract. At this stage, it is also important to focus on choosing appropriate keywords.  

What are keywords and why are they important? 

Keywords are words or short phrases that capture the key aspects of your manuscript. They serve two main purposes: 

  1. Categorizing your paper during the submission/publication process 

  1. Indexing your paper after publication 

With regard to the first, journal staff generally screen a submitted manuscript, including its keywords, to make sure that it is relevant to the journal’s aims and scope and is likely to interest the journal’s readers. Thus, appropriate keywords can reduce your chances of desk rejection and make it easier for journal staff to assign your paper to suitable section editors or peer reviewers. 

Second, after your paper is published, keywords are useful for indexing and retrieval; that is, they are a tool used by database search engines to find relevant papers in response to user queries and suggest them to users (i.e., readers). Thus, choosing suitable keywords can make your own paper easier to find in databases and library systems, thereby increasing the number of people reading and subsequently citing your paper.  

What makes keywords effective? 

As explained in the previous section, keywords need to be effective. Good keywords are representative of what your research is about and are well-known or widely used in your field but not too general or non-specific. Let’s look at some examples:  

Manuscript title: Incidence of major depressive disorder after coronary artery bypass grafting in young-old women 

Poor keywords: cardiology, women, MDD [an abbreviation] 

Good keywords: depression, coronary disease 

Manuscript title: Optimizing rainwater harvesting in urban environments: A case study from Malaysia 

Poor keywords: rain, Malaysia, city 

Good keywords: urban design, water conservation 

How do I choose keywords? 

We’ve listed some strategies below that you can apply while selecting keywords for your manuscript: 

  1. Identify the main features of your study. Look at how you describe your research question, hypothesis, variables of interest, or key findings. In certain fields, your study population or study setting may also be used as keywords.  

  1. Think about whom you want to read your paper. What are these readers likely to input in search engines? For example, medical professionals are more likely to use the term “breastfeeding” rather than “nursing” when they want to retrieve research on human lactation.  

  1. Familiarize yourself with your target journal’s requirements. Journals can require anywhere between 3 and 8 keywords. Also, many journals in medicine and healthcare require authors to use only MeSH terms as keywords. Some journals also require that keywords do not repeat terms used in the manuscript title.  

  1. Avoid extremely long keywords unless these are well-known phrases in your field. Generally, each keyword should be 4 words or fewer.  

  1. Avoid broad terms like “study” or “patient.” Make these more precise by stating what type of study or population your paper describes, such as “randomized clinical trial.” 

  1. Spell out abbreviations, unless these are very commonly used in your field and by your target journal’s readers. For instance, “GERD” may be acceptable if the manuscript is meant for a specialized subset of gastroenterology professionals, but “gastroesophageal reflux disease” may work better to attract a broader medical readership.  

Pro tip: Test out your chosen keywords in the search engines or databases that are popular in your field. See if the results throw up papers on topics similar to yours. If your search results comprise papers that are highly irrelevant or from a wide variety of unrelated fields, your keywords need to be refined further.  


Making your research paper stand out among hundreds and thousands of others is not easy. Selecting the right keywords requires a lot of effort. However, this effort is worth it because keywords directly influence how visible your paper is to your target readership and whether your research will add to human knowledge or help resolve real-world challenges.   

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Published on: Dec 23, 2022

An editor at heart and perfectionist by disposition, providing solutions for journals, publishers, and universities in areas like alt-text writing and publication consultancy.
See more from Marisha Fonseca


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