• Yong Yi Tan

Identifying Keywords

This article is part of the Deconstructing MUN: Research series. Check out the rest of the series below!

Part 1: Introduction to Research Methodology Part 2: Identifying Keywords (currently reading)

Part 3: Scoping and Magnifying

Part 4: Source Curation (coming soon)

Part 5: Annotation and Analysis (coming soon)

Part 6: Cross-Referencing (coming soon)

For most students, “keyword” is a term that has been incessantly chanted like a mantra by teachers in the classroom. Unfortunately, very few educators actually explain why they attach such sanctity to a concept that may ring hollow to the ears of exhausted, sleep-deprived students.

Indeed, we are happy with our synonyms and our habit of interchanging many words with similar meanings throughout daily conversation and even in written work. Yet, this absentia of definitions and repeated terms, or “keywords”, makes for poor learning, among other problems.

So what’s the deal with keywords?

Keywords, in corpus linguistics (i.e. the study of samples of real-world texts), are words in a piece of text that appear in a statistically significant frequency. Now, such words may appear so often by way of the author's intention or mere coincidence, so it is important to distinguish intended keywords from red herrings. If you accidentally focus on the red herrings, your research scope will end up differing from the chair’s expected debate scope. This may leave you quite disoriented during the conference as the content which you have prepared would be wholly different from what the majority is debating.

Keywords have high frequency because the author wishes to convey a certain idea, theme, or concept to the reader. By repeating the same word(s) throughout the text, an association is formed between the expressed idea and the word(s) used. The reader can thus immediately recall or visualise the idea and adapt it according to the present context when the word(s) is/are read. The word(s) acts as a reference point, or “signpost”, for that idea wherever it appears in the text.

Such keywords are significant in not just objective essays where they convey ideas, but also in opinion pieces. Examples include political significance in political opinion columns, economic significance in budget reports, and societal significance in social media commentaries about inequality. Often, these keywords are linked to or even represent the main idea of the piece of text. By consistently appearing throughout the text, the keywords act as a single narrative thread that runs through all the ideas, data, and other information presented within the text.

So, how do keywords fit into our Research Methodology? It lies in the first step.

Before conducting additional research, you are expected to read the Study Guide provided by your Chairs. Assuming you have, you may proceed to identify a few words or phrases that appear numerous times across the text or within self-contained sections.

The most straightforward way of doing so is to be conscious of what words appear frequently as you read the Study Guide, or you can perform a simple word frequency analysis of the text using online tools. The latter is automatic and will tell you exactly how many times particular words appear in the text, but the downside is that they do not provide the context in which these words appear due to the lack of a reading frame. This may result in unintentional red herrings.

These keywords are important in MUN because these are usually the main ideas and points of contention which your chairs may want you to discuss. Furthermore, assuming that your chairs have also read a wide corpus of relevant academic writing when preparing the Study Guide, these keywords, be it a deliberate or unconscious choice, would reflect the main ideas which your chairs themselves have come across during their research and thus are more inclined to hear during debate.

However, if you are pressed for time and/or have not read the Study Guide, look for the Introduction and Conclusion, and find words or ideas which appear in both sections. The headings of the sections and subsections within the Study Guide are also keywords.

Now that you have compiled a pool of keywords from the Study Guide, organise them in a mind map format and draw all logical links between them. These ideas and keywords may be linked to one another through cause-and-effect, geographical relations, timeline, relationships between humans, and much more.

To further enrich your pool for keywords, you can brainstorm some of your own ideas and keywords that branch off from your existing mind map. This will broaden your scope and depth of research by discovering new points, but do be careful so as not to stray too far from the original issue.

Now, what do we do with this pool of keywords and mind map? Effectively, you have just constructed a mental model that attempts to explain the issue for yourself! With this mental model in mind, you can use the keywords and ideas present as actual search terms when you research, as well as categorise and organise your findings more neatly.

With these keywords, you can also construct research questions for yourself. Typically, they come in these several variations:

  • How do I explain concept A?

  • What is the series of cause-and-effects that led to an incident B?

  • How does event C lead to D?

  • What are the implications of event E? Who does it affect?

  • What is the relationship between object F and G?

With our groundwork laid and armed with keywords, we can now proceed to Scoping and Magnifying.

Read Part 3: Scoping and Magnifying here

Written by

Tan Yong Yi



Gentile, J. R., Voelkl, K. E., Pleasant, J. M., & Monaco, N. M. (1995). Recall After Relearning by Fast and Slow Learners. The Journal of Experimental Education, 63(3),185-197. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.1995.9943808

Biggs, J. B. (1985). The Role of Metalearning in Study Processes. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 55(3),185-212. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8279.1985.tb02625.x


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