5 Tips for Picking the Best Keywords for Your Research Paper

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The main purpose of academic journals is to make research available to the international scientific community, which is why they’re considered one of the most important sources of information for scientists and researchers. That also makes them the prime choice for academics seeking to share their work and advance their careers. However, given the huge number of scholars competing for publication, it’s crucial that the quality of both your research and writing is top-notch. 

If you’re submitting your paper for publication, it’s because you want your peers to read it, but you also want them to cite it in their own works. Being cited by fellow researchers is one of the best ways to gain visibility in your field and enhance your credibility. You can even cite your previous papers, but don’t overdo it—you should treat your own publications like anyone else’s and only cite them if they’re truly relevant. To earn citations from other academics, your work first has to be found. 

One way to increase the chances of your paper being found is through keywords. From search engines to indexes, keywords will help it pop up in the results when someone searches for the topic you’ve explored, but choosing the right keywords takes some forethought and preparation. Unless you select appropriate keywords, your article may never receive the attention it deserves, so don’t take this step lightly.

If you’ve finished your first draft and would like an expert to improve the quality of your writing, check out our deluxe academic package and let our professionals polish your research paper to a shine with specialized services such as proofreading and editing, a requirements review, free revisions for 30 days, and more. 

If you’re just getting started or are in the process of writing your research paper, how do you choose the best keywords for it? Here are five tips to help you with the selection.

1. Follow the journal’s submission guidelines

Following a journal’s submission guidelines is crucial throughout the publication process, not just for your keywords, since different journals have different requirements. Academic publications also tend to be strict about compliance, and they usually don’t hesitate to reject high-quality research papers simply because the author(s) didn’t meet their requirements. Therefore, adhering to the guidelines should be a top priority.

When it comes to keywords, some journals suggest keywords related to your subject matter or field of study, most have a limit on the number of keywords you can submit, and others only let you submit single-word keywords. It’s crucial to have a clear understanding of what the journal you’ve chosen requires you to do before you start writing so you don’t waste any time on revisions later. 

2. Select your keywords before you start writing

Most writers don’t think about keywords until they’ve finished writing their papers, which makes it much harder to naturally embed them into the text. Academic journals ask authors to submit a list of keywords along with their paper, but embedding the keywords into your manuscript will increase your chances of appearing at the top of the search results. That’s why selecting them before you start writing makes it infinitely easier to sprinkle them throughout. 

This is search engine optimization (SEO), which is an essential practice in content marketing, but the art of effective SEO goes beyond selecting the right keywords—it also entails weaving them seamlessly into your writing. Inserting keywords into your paper after it’s written poses the risk of making it sound awkward and unnatural, disrupting the flow of the text and ultimately impacting the reader’s ability to absorb all the information. 

Compiling a list of keywords and keeping it in sight while you write will not only remind you to use them, but it can also give you a nudge if you’re struggling with writer’s block, providing a guide on your focal points. Don’t force them into sentences unnaturally or overuse them to the point of degrading your writing—just let your list serve as a basic guide.

If you’ve already started (or finished) writing your manuscript, don’t worry—it’s not too late, although including appropriate keywords in your text from beginning to end will require some revision. First, we suggest reading back through your work and making a note of the terms that stand out and any missing ones that could take your paper higher in search results. It’s far more difficult to spot what’s missing than what’s there, but look for opportunities to insert effective keywords. Remember to focus on themes and concepts and to use a combination of single words, terms, and short phrases that won’t feel out of place in your writing and will be accepted by the journal. 

3. Choose an appropriate scope for your keywords

Keywords that are either too broad or too narrow usually don’t work, so try to avoid them. If a keyword has too wide a scope, like biology or physics, your paper will get lost in a sea of resources that use the same word, likely in their title or description. In addition, such keywords are not nearly specific enough—research typically needs to delve deep into a particular topic, and a peer looking for papers like yours will search for more precise terms. However, if you narrow the scope down too much (for example, by using scientific names or obscure terms), you’re unlikely to be found by many people at all, even if they’re subject matter experts. 

So, what’s the key to getting the scope right? Balance. Find terms and keywords common enough for people to plug into a search bar but specific enough to be clearly related to your subject matter. They shouldn’t be too broad nor too niche—you want to hit just the right level of specificity. Think about how you would search for your article and what you would expect to find with the keywords you used. In fact, why not do a search for your keywords and see if you find other papers similar to yours? Are the results what you expected? If not, you need to adjust your keywords. 

4. Narrow down your techniques and methodologies 

Although most people focus their keywords on the concepts and themes of their work, keywords can also represent any relevant techniques and methodologies applied in the research. If you used a new technology or a novel approach or worked with specific substances or compounds, they’re likely to be something your peers are interested in reading more about when conducting their own research. Of course, you should only use techniques and methodologies as keywords if they comprise an integral part of your research—if they’re not all that relevant to your overall paper, they won’t work well as keywords.

5. Don’t waste space with keywords already in your title

Think of the title of your paper as the main keyword. If someone searches for any of the words in it, your work will show up in the results, so there’s no reason to include any of those words in the keyword list you submit to the journal—they already are keywords. You don’t want to make your list too long (and most journals wouldn’t allow that anyway), so you have to be discerning with the keywords you select.

From the terms you use most often in your paper to the title and the keyword list you submit, making the right choices can mean the difference between ranking at the top of academic publishing databases and getting lost in the shuffle. If you’ve already figured out your keywords and have finished writing your paper, get an instant quote for our academic proofreading and editing services to take your writing to the next level. 

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