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Explore and refine your topic: Map concepts

Concept maps or tables help you to brainstorm ideas, focus your topic, and identify possible keywords (aka search terms) before using the library's databases to search for articles for your literature review. You can start one quickly with pen and paper and organise your words later in a spreadsheet or concept mapping software.

Choose a medium that is flexible and can grow. Post-it notes are easy to move around and are great for brainstorming in a group, a spreadsheet works well for a concept table and concept mapping software allows you to move concepts around, link ideas and expand the drawing area as new concepts are added.

Concept map

concept_map_lrg, 2008, by Jean-Louis Zimmermann. (Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

To find relevant words, you can use a dictionary or encyclopedia (Wikipedia is very useful for this). You can also do a quick search for journal articles and have a look at the results list. In the titles or abstracts (note the keywords!) you will definitely find some extra search terms. Database thesauri are also great places to look for subject headings (controlled vocabulary used to tag records in the database) that match the concepts in your research topic.

While reading up on the research topic you may discover different words in the literature to describe the same concept. It's important to add these synonyms to your lists as well as variant spellings (behavior/behaviour). Think also about how a concept can be expressed in layman's terms or in formal, scientific or academic language.


  • The Guides by discipline contain links to selected reference works (dictionaries, encyclopedias and handbooks).
  • To find definitions in Google Search use the prefix define: directly before your search term, for example: define:"work engagement"
    Google Search will return results from online dictionaries, encyclopedias and websites.

Organize the words you have for the concepts in your research topic in lists and then in categories per key concept in a concept table. Arrange the concepts in categories that are relevant to your focus question.

The example below shows the title and description of an assignment. The main concepts are highlighted. Alternative terms for the highlighted concepts were found by searching in database thesauri and subject headings. Play the animation to see how you can organize topic words from the assignment into key concept categories and then add in any alternative search terms you find.

Engagement on the work floor
Engaged employees are energetic, dedicated to their work, and they often forget the time when they are at work. Engaged employees are very important to organizations, research shows that they perform better and that they are innovative, creative and proactive. Work engagement can be promoted in several ways. One way is to optimize the resources in the work-environment such as autonomy, feedback, and development opportunities. Combining resources with challenging task-requirements may also lead to more engagement. In addition, supervisors can also play an important role in increasing work engagement.

Cmap software is a result of research conducted at the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC). You can use it to construct, navigate, share and criticize knowledge models represented as concept maps.

Click here to see a concept map on Happiness made with CmapTools.

Watch the video CmapTools: How to Construct a Concept Map (2:08)


You wouldn't use all the concepts included in an extended concept map as search terms in your literature search only those ones you identify as being key concepts and keywords related to the aspect you want to research further.