How to select effective journal article keywords

Can your audience find you?Unless potential readers are searching for your article by title or are reading the journal your work is published in, chances are they are going to find your article through a research search engine. If effective keywords are not associated with your article, the search engine uses content in your title, abstract, and article to determine if your article is relative to the user’s search efforts. As a result, your target reader may never see your work.

To improve your chances of getting in front of the right audience, keywords let you identify places where your work is a relevant choice for the reader. Below are five ways to select effective keywords for your journal article.

1) Think like the reader (not the author)

First, this requires knowing who your article is intended to reach – and no, it’s not everyone. Revisiting the research problem or research questions associated with your article can be a good start for identifying the type of need your article fills. What questions does your article answer? How would someone unfamiliar with your research ask those questions?

2) Consider phrases, not words

Keywords is a bit of a misnomer dating back to early search engine optimization practices when a series of single words were used to feed the indexing process, however, when was the last time you typed a single word into any search engine and expected to get the right results? Chances are you search using phrases of 3-5 words each. When selecting keywords to describe your article, think the same way. When a user searches for one of the phrases you have identified in your article keywords, your article is determined to be relevant – even without an examination of the title and content.

3) Focus on what makes your study unique

Without getting so specific that your audience would not actually use the phrase in a search, consider the specific elements of your study that narrow the field of results. For example, the phrase “journal article keywords” would yield a more targeted (and smaller list of results) than the phrase “keyword searches”. Include key methodologies or techniques used in the study if your reader will be looking for those items.

4) Align your keyword selection with the title and abstract

For greatest relevance, and ultimate readership, what the user is looking for (defined by the keywords) should be consistent with the title and abstract of your published article. Some journals will not allow the use of keywords that are already included in the article title, so be sure to check the submission guidelines. Even if direct use is not permitted, keywords should represent the article content expressed in the other elements.

5) Quality test your keyword selections

Before submitting your keywords, perform searches on each phrase you have selected. What articles are returned? Are they similar to your article? Can you envision your article in this same result set? How large is the list of results? If the result set is too large or small, is not related to your article, or otherwise seems like a poor fit, reconsider the use of that keyword.

Remember that keywords are what potential readers will use to find articles of interest. Using those keywords to appear in the right search results is the first step to improved readership. To be sure that they select your article from the list, an engaging title and an effective abstract are also necessary.


Eric SchmiederEric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.