Keywords- don’t neglect them!

Following on from consideration of the value of a good title for a paper, it is perhaps appropriate to also think about keywords. Keywords… those four or five tricky words and phrases that authors are asked to add to their manuscript. Those four or five words and phrases that are invariably the last thing to be written. Those four or five words that invariably get no consideration at all. What are they for?

Keywords are an important tool to help search engines find relevant papers. Ultimately it was probably a keywords search on Google that led you to this page. If database search engines can make use of appropriate keywords to find your journal manuscript, then your intended readers will be able to find it too. The knock-on effect is that a greater audience will be able to access your work, your citations and influence upon your field will also increase.

Keywords serve another function at an earlier stage of the publications process. As journal editors we often depend on those keywords to find appropriate expert reviewers for your paper. Sadly, the lack of care and attention given to their selection often means that the editorial job is made that much harder. Careful selection of keywords should generate words that a) represent the content of your manuscript and b) are specific enough to be relevant to your sub-field. For JHND for example, having nutrition or dietetics is of no use whatsoever. They are not specific enough and all JHND papers could have them as keywords. Similarly obesity is not hugely helpful as our database has more than 500 reviewers who list obesity as an area of interest.

Let’s take a look at a title for a paper and consider the choice of keywords:

Quantifying photographic dietary records: the effect of a portion size estimation aid on measurement error in a dietary survey. 


Dietetics, Portion Size, Dietary Assessment, Dietetics

OK, so Dietetics is something I have already commented on. It is not helpful to the journal editor, nor does it really help anyone searching for papers like this. The paper isn’t really about dietetics, it is about measurement error in dietary survey. Also, why has the author listed it twice? More care and attention! Don’t leave it until the last moment!

Portion size- that seems to be a good choice. It is what the paper is about and is something that readers may search for.

Dietary assessment– again, not a bad choice as it does give an indication of what the paper is about. 

However, neither dietary assessment nor portion size really convey the scope of this paper. My choice of keywords would be more focused on what the paper is about, which is measurement error in assessment and the use of photographic records. A better set of keywords would also draw out issues that are not obvious in the title:

Dietary assessment

Measurement error

Photographic diet record

Portion size


Food atlas


These things are well worth paying attention to, so give it more than 20 seconds thought next time you submit an article.


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