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Information Literacy Research Skill Building: Identifying Main Concepts

This guide contains information literacy instructional materials based on the ACRL Information Literacy Standards.

Identifying Main Concepts


Often the most neglected part of an initial analysis of any research topic is identifying the main concepts.

You should consider all possible ways of expressing the central ideas (concepts) of your topic at this stage. You will be better prepared to search a variety of databases and search tools, and ask better questions about the topic, if you develop your search vocabulary early and keep expanding and refining your list of synonyms, related terms, broader terms, and more specific terms.

We'll stay with the same research scenario we've used throughout this module to explore the identification of concepts and development of keywords.

Topic: Trends and changes in the Pacific Northwest's natural environment brought about by economic development during the last 30 years.
train in front of a horizon at sundown


First, let's identify the MAIN CONCEPTS of the topic!

1. Look at the research question and pick out the main ideas.
  • Pacific Northwest
  • environment
  • economic development
Words like "trends," "changes," "effects," etc. are pretty meaningless in the scheme of most topics. Often, you will get this information (the trends, changes, and effects) by finding information on the topic anyway. So, overlook these kind of abstract terms.
Concept 1
Concept 2
Concept 3
Pacific Northwest environment economic development

As you might anticipate, identifying the main concepts of a research topic is at least as much "art" as "science". There are more likely choices than others, however. If you identified other concepts than what is mentioned above, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are "wrong".

Sometimes, depending on what database you are searching, you can ignore some of the concepts. For example, if we were to do a search on this topic in the history database "American History and Life", we wouldn't have to worry about specifying the concept "United States", because it's inherent in every search in the database.

For a reasonable handle on your research, your topic should probably contain somewhere between 2 and 4 concepts.

Next, consider the KEYWORDS associated with the concepts.

2. Now you are ready to prepare a list of "search terms" or "key words" which correspond to each concept.
Concept 1
Concept 2
Concept 3
Pacific Northwest environment economic development
Keywords: Washington state air industrialization
Oregon water suburban sprawl
Montana land recreation industry
Idaho soil timber industry
Alaska ozone highway construction
Seattle forests tourism
Portland public land paper mills
Puget Sound mountains mills
Vancouver Island ocean economic growth
Rocky Mountain public land
Portland community
Columbia River parks
Cascade Mountains old growth forest

(this list can continue on and on with rivers, mountains, cities, and other areas including counties, etc.
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