Exploiting the Power of Keywords in your PhD Thesis or Dissertation
Although a tiny and, in the history of doctoral studies, relatively recent aspect of a PhD dissertation, keywords (also called ‘key words’ or ‘key terms’) pack a very large punch in today’s world of digital publication and online searches. Some might even argue that a dissertation’s keywords have become more important than its title, and, in one sense, this may well be true. Certainly it is easier to include in your keywords the exact terms you think readers are likely to use when searching for information on the topic of your dissertation, because keywords are created and included solely for search purposes without the need to compromise by joining them syntactically into the logical sense required in a title. Keywords are simply listed, usually in alphabetical order immediately after the abstract, with the individual terms separated by commas, semicolons or occasionally middots (points raised above the line) and often capitalised (generally with initial capitals only, though in some cases block capitals are used). Between three and ten keywords are normally required (with three to eight being most common), but each keyword can usually contain more than one word, though unnecessary connective words (such as ‘and,’ ‘or,’ ‘of’ and ‘between’) should be avoided as much as possible. The exact format of your keywords may be dictated by university or department guidelines, which should be carefully checked for any instructions of the kind.
The keywords you choose should first and foremost be terms that represent the central concepts in your dissertation, but they should also be terms that potential readers seeking information of the kind contained in your dissertation are most likely to enter into search engines. Nonstandard abbreviations devised for the purposes of your dissertation should, as a general rule, be avoided when formulating your keywords, especially if it is possible to use the full terms, which tend to be clearer for readers. Acronyms and initialisms are usually acceptable, especially if the abbreviated versions are more common or better known than the full terms (as is the case, for instance, with ‘AIDS,’ ‘NASA,’ ‘CD’ and ‘IQ’). In fact, abbreviations of any kind may be preferred in your keywords if it is more likely that they rather than their full versions will be used by readers researching your topic, but if you are in any doubt about their being allowed, do check with your department or supervisory committee to be certain your keywords will be appropriate. Your keywords should also reflect the technical and/or theoretical language currently used within your discipline or field of study, so specialised terminology may be appropriate for some of your keywords, but highly specialised language should only be used in keywords if it is probable that it will also be used by potential readers as they search for material associated with your dissertation topic. Specialised terminology that will not increase the chances of your dissertation being discovered by readers within your field should be avoided, as it also will not increase your chances of being read by a more general audience, while less specialised language just might.
Occasionally, university or department guidelines will request that the keywords for a dissertation not repeat terms used in the title, but this is unusual and in most cases your keywords can be used in your title as well, making their occurrence more frequent and thus potentially more prominent for search engines. Remember that your abstract and in some cases other sections of your dissertation will also be visible to search engines, so the careful use of keywords throughout your dissertation allows you to exploit fully their power to increase your readership. By formulating your keywords early in the drafting process and refining them as you write, you can ensure that you use them effectively in the various parts of your dissertation, and having those key terms to hand as you work may also help you focus on central issues as you tackle the many complexities of your study.
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