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April 02, 2015

Keywords in APA Style

Timothy McAdooby Timothy McAdoo

What are keywords?

If you’ve searched PsycINFO, Google Scholar, or other databases, you’ve probably run across keywords. In APA Style articles, they appear just under the abstract. They are usually supplied by an article’s author(s), and they help databases create accurate search results.

Key lightbulbsHow do I pick my keywords?

Keywords are words or phrases that you feel capture the most important aspects of your paper. To create yours, just think about the topics in your paper: What words would you enter into a search box to find your paper? Use those!

We call these natural-language words, because they reflect the way people really talk about, and search for, a topic. In fact, in some databases, to provide comprehensive results, the “keywords” search option actually searches the article titles and abstracts along with these designated keywords.

In short, when later researchers are searching PsycINFO or other research databases, the keywords help them find your work.

For example, if you’ve written a paper about the benefits of social media for people with anxiety, your keywords line might be as follows:

Keywords: anxiety, social media, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat

Note how I’ve included the social media platform names. Keywords don’t have to be formal; they just have to be useful! These keywords will help the later researcher who searches for one of those terms or a combinations of them (e.g., “anxiety and social media,” “anxiety, Facebook, and Twitter”).

Also, because these are natural-language words, keywords can include acronyms. Keywords for a paper on using the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test with patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder might look like this:

Keywords: Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, WCST, OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder

The Publication Manual does not place a limit on how many keywords you may use. However, to be most effective, keywords should be a concise summary of your paper’s content. We recommend three to five keywords.

Where do they go?

The keywords line should begin indented like a paragraph. (In typeset APA journal articles, the keywords line is aligned under the abstract.)  Keywords: should be italicized, followed by a space. The words themselves should not be italicized. You can see an example under the abstract in this APA Style sample paper.

Note (02/01/2016): An earlier version of this post indicated that the keywords line should be centered. This was corrected in the paragraph above.

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