One of the things the students I work with often have difficulty with is selecting good subject terms to pull relevant search results while looking for articles in electronic databases. In the age of Google, we are so used to looking for information by asking questions. Unfortunately, asking a database a question in a similar form to how we would ask Siri for directions to the nearest Starbucks will probably not produce very relevant search results. This is because most electronic databases use specific subject terms and subject tags to organize and filter content. Typing in extraneous words will connect us to irrelevant results.
Additionally, while searching the databases, students also often don’t notice the use of subject tags on the articles. In many databases, clicking on a hyperlinked subject tag in an article record will pull up a list of other articles that have been tagged with the same subject. This can really help when someone is struggling to find enough relevant articles for their research paper.
To help them understand how to pick out good subject terms and encourage them to click on and explore the subject tags, I often compare forming a research question to using hashtags on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Most students are familiar enough with the use of hashtags to know that if you make a mistake typing in a hashtag, you won’t pull up the relevant posts. Making a mistake while typing in a subject term is like making a typo in the hashtag on your social media posts, i.e. selecting #fluffythecat instead of #floofythecat will not bring you to pictures of the same cat.
This analogy not only emphasizes that grammar and spelling are important but also makes them think about which keywords are the most closely related to their research questions, helping to formulate their research strategy. Most importantly, it demonstrates how easy peasy selecting keywords can be, and makes database searching less intimidating.