How to choose the right keywords for your paper

If you think of keywords as unimportant details of your paper, I get it. Selecting my keywords used to be one of the last things I did when uploading my articles to the journal platform. But recently, I realized that they are essential elements of a scientific article.

In this post, I want to explain why neglecting keywords is a mistake. You’ll discover how your keywords compose the very fabric of your paper. You’ll also learn how to choose the right keywords and use them wisely in your article. But first things first: what are keywords in scientific research?

keywords example

What are keywords in scientific articles?

When I talk about ‘keywords,’ I’m actually referring to two slightly different concepts.

First of all, keywords in scientific writing refer to the few words that accompany the submission of a scientific article, grant proposal, or conference abstract. Editors, grant agencies, and conference organizers use them to catalog your research in their databases and select reviewers with the right expertise. That’s the first meaning you might attribute to ‘keywords’. However, when I (Gaya) talk about ‘keywords,’ I mean more than that.

When I talk about keywords, I also include all the vocabulary you use throughout your article. This vocabulary includes:

  • Your research topic,
  • The variables you manipulate and measure,
  • The techniques and methods you use,
  • The theories you mention in your article,
  • The characteristics of your sample,
  • And any other concepts central to your research.

All these words define the research and form the basic ingredients of any scientific article. Yet few scientists take the time to think about them. And rarely do they consciously decide on the words they want to use.

What happens when you neglect your keywords?

Your target audience can’t find you

Of course, everyone in academia is familiar with the delightful expression “publish or perish.” This moronic concept harms both science and scientists. And, while I completely understand that you want to publish in good journals, you shouldn’t write your papers just to add another line to your CV. Your aim should be to make a meaningful contribution, have an impact, and reach a wide readership. So it’s important that this readership finds you.

When researchers look for scientific literature, they enter a series of words into a search engine, such as Google, Google Scholar, or PubMed. The search engine algorithm then scans the massive number of articles in its database and produces a list of papers corresponding to these words. The top-ranked articles are those containing the greatest number of matching keywords.

So, if your article doesn’t include the right keywords or includes them but in a low proportion, the search engine won’t give it a good ranking. Your article will end up on page 7 of the search engine output, a sad place where only a few desperate Ph.D. students wander in search of overlooked literature.

Unclear keywords make for confused readers

There’s a reason search engines care so much about keywords and their distribution in articles: words are the best indicators of an article’s content. If you write about a certain topic, but the words corresponding to that topic only appear a few times in your article, there’s probably something wrong with it.

There are two main reasons why the keyword density in your article might not be optimal.

The first reason is that the keywords you’ve chosen may not accurately reflect your article’s content. This happens when you select keywords that are popular but not directly related to the main focus of your article. For instance, if you use ‘COVID-19’ as a keyword in a paper that discusses general principles of immunology and only briefly touches on COVID-19, there’s a mismatch. A similar discrepancy occurs when you opt for a broad keyword like ‘genome’ for an article that delves into something more specific, such as the ‘TP53 gene’.

The second reason for inadequate keyword density is subtler yet more common. It occurs when the vocabulary you use throughout your article is inconsistent. For example, if one of your keywords is ‘DNA recombination’ and you open your paper with that term but then call it ‘genetic recombination,’ ‘genetic crossover,’ or ‘genome shuffling,’ your readers will be confused. Although these terms may seem synonymous to you, your readers may struggle to keep up with your narration, and search engines might fail to recognize the consistency of your topic.

When we write, we tend to overlook the words we use and often start inadvertently mixing concepts. This kind of inconsistency confuses readers and dilutes the article focus. I’ve observed this problem in hundreds of articles, and in my experience, it’s a flaw that reviewers always pick up on and use as a reason to reject an article.

What makes for good keywords?

They comply with the journal guidelines

It may sound basic, but respecting the journal keywords guidelines is a sine qua non condition for your article to be accepted. The main guideline relates to the number of keywords you are allowed to submit with your manuscript. This number is generally limited to five but can vary from journal to journal. You may also find other guidelines, such as having to choose your keywords from a pre-selected list or using only one-word keywords.

So, before you begin drafting your paper, consult the ‘Instructions for Authors’ page on the journal website. Make sure that your keyword selection meets their expectations.

Effective keywords accurately reflect the article content

If a keyword suggests that your research is about a topic when, in fact, it’s about something else, your readers will be disappointed and form a negative impression of your paper. So, stick to the words that are central to your research.

Your research topic must be one of your keywords (see The Ultimate Guide to Scientific Writing for a definition of ‘research topic’). If your methodology or a particular result is at the heart of your article, it’s also probably a good idea to include them as keywords. For example, if you used fMRI to measure brain activation, you can use ‘fMRI’ as one of your keywords. Or if you found strong activation in the amygdala, you may want to add the ‘amygdala’ to your keywords list. Choosing keywords that capture the essence of your research brings clarity to your paper and increases its visibility.

Your keywords must match your audience’s searches

When choosing your keywords, it’s essential to consider your audience. Which keywords is your target readership most likely to use in their searches?

If several synonyms can describe your research, find out which terms are most commonly used in your field. Browse the databases your readers might use and assess the popularity of those different terms.

For example, my research focuses on the ability to control oneself and resist temptation. For my keywords, I could use several terms that have similar meanings, such as self-control, self-discipline, willpower, or inhibitory control. To choose the best keyword, I would analyze PsycInfo, the most popular search engine in my field, and see how many entries are associated with each of these keywords. The more entries, the more popular the keyword, and therefore the more likely my readership is to pick it up. And in case you’re wondering, the winner is ‘self-control’ 🙂

Choose keywords that are specific enough

Interested readers should be able to find your article amidst the ocean of scientific content available online. Using keywords that are specific enough can significantly narrow down the search results, making your paper more visible.

Often, keyphrases like ‘inflammatory breast cancer’ are more effective than broad terms like ‘cancer’. Specificity not only enhances the findability of your article but also increases the likelihood that it will be read and cited by a relevant audience.

How to use keywords to optimize the online visibility of your article?

After having carefully selected your keywords or keyphrases, write them on a Post-it, and highlight the two most important ones. Then make sure to incorporate them into the various parts of your paper, namely:

  • In your title. The title is one of the first elements that readers notice and search engines analyze. Incorporating your main keyword into the title thus boosts your article’s discoverability and clearly signals your research content to potential readers.
  • In your abstract. This is the first section of your article that other researchers read and search engines analyze. So, remember to include your most important keywords in it.
  • Throughout the text of your paper. Your keywords should be woven into the text of your paper, from the introduction to the conclusion.
  • In your figures and tables. Don’t forget your figures and tables. They are indexed in search engines and provide an additional avenue for your research to be found (e.g., via Google image).

Don’t go overboard with keywords, though. Your writing should feel natural to readers, and keyword stuffing won’t make your article more visible anyway. Search engines aim to provide the most relevant and useful content to users. A document saturated with the same words appears spammy, which may lower its ranking in search results. So, try to use your keywords naturally.

In Sum

Words are the basic ingredients of any article. Neglecting them can leave your research lost in the vast digital ocean, invisible to your target audience, and disconnected from the readers it deserves to reach.

Fortunately, selecting and using the right keywords in your article isn’t complicated. Simply follow the journal’s guidelines and select words or phrases that accurately reflect your content, resonate with your audience, and are specific enough to emerge in your reader’s search.

Now, if you’re writing a paper or abstract, open it and reflect on your keywords: Are they precise? Do they align with your audience’s search habits? Do they encapsulate the core of your research?

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