Almost all journals ask for keywords and most authors comply.

Does any math researcher out there actually use them to search? Are there mechanisms to do that?

I just wrote to someone that I assumed no one uses them because I never do. It then occurred to me that my assumption might be wrong.

Educate me.

(BTW, the MO auto-criticism mechanism is giving me this message: "That's not a very good title. Can you add some more unique words to it?" The implicit self references in the situation make it too difficult for me to even try.)

(Second BTW, this question either has never been asked here, or it was deemed worthy of being expunged.)

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    $\begingroup$ Somewhat related question: How should the math subject classification msc be revised or improved? mathoverflow.net/questions/28334/… $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2012 at 2:10
  • $\begingroup$ I would say MSC is well known and used/accepted by many working mathematicians in various ways. BSteinhurst's answer is interesting (and perhaps justifies keywords), but I did have in mind use by "working mathematicians" rather than institutions. (Yes, MR is an institution.) I do general searches all the time in MR and ArXiv, but I doubt the keywords chosen by the authors for published articles are involved. I should have been more specific: working mathematicians, via some mechanism, making use of the keywords chosen by the authors to appear at the beginning of a published article. $\endgroup$
    – Matt Brin
    Aug 29, 2012 at 3:42
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    $\begingroup$ Here is an idea for a title; How do journal requested keywords aid in article searches, and whom do they aid? Gerhard "Actually Willing To Provide Assistance" Paseman, 2012.08.28 $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2012 at 6:58
  • $\begingroup$ Delio's answer helps. I assume the mechanism involved is reading the keywords off the first page of the article by sight. Gerhard's comment implies that there are mechanisms out there that exploit the keywords. Since I do not know of any, a specific example or two would be interesting. Community wiki might be appropriate. I wasn't sure at the start what kind of discussion would result from the question. $\endgroup$
    – Matt Brin
    Aug 29, 2012 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ While I mention it in my answer here is an other 'search' question, focus using MSC in the proceess mathoverflow.net/questions/96219 $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Aug 29, 2012 at 14:28

4 Answers 4


I know that Mathematical Reviews use the keywords to assign articles to reviewers since the MSC codes are sometimes too broad to be of much use. This does help find reviewers who can actually say something meaningful about the article.

  • $\begingroup$ Yet strangely I just noticed that the MathSciNet search interface does not let you directly search keywords. Curiouser and curiouser. $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2012 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ @BSteinhurst: yes it does. The key word to choose from the MR list of options is "anywhere". I often have the vague impression that a particular person proved a particular sort of result, so to find it quickly I enter into MathSciNet their name as author together with the parameter "anywhere" set to a keyword that will dramatically narrow down their list of papers. Example: "author = Lang, S*" and "anywhere = textbook". $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2012 at 12:51

one possible answer:

example: i work in a field of functional analysis called "semigroup theory". no connection whatsoever (well, almost) with algebra. most times i would not be able to understand - just by the title - if an article discusses "my" semigroups or algebraic ones; a few times i would be clueless even after reading the abstract. keywords and/or msc classification always do the job, though.

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    $\begingroup$ People who study lattices - in one sense or the other - must face a similar challenge. $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2012 at 11:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Tom: Good point! I also recall that some MO posts with questions on lattices were unfortunately mistagged in the beginning. $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2012 at 12:06

A couple of remarks:

  1. In Zentralblatt MATH "keywords" are explicitly included. For example, see this entry for one of the OP's papers (link should work without subscription; the precise choice of the paper was random). And one can search for them (under category 'basic'); possibly 'browsing by' is the more interesting way to use this as discussed in this question on searching related to MSC classification. [For similar remarks for MathSciNet see Patricia Hersh's comment.]

  2. This is more for books than for journal articles, but (certain) electronic library catalogues contain "keywords". These then can also be used for searching. I occassioally found this useful. Say, I search for a book on some subject; I know one, I go to its entry, I click on a keyword, and get a list of books with the same 'keyword'. These keywords than can also be in some hierarchy and inter-linked. Personally, I never had a need to use this extensively as I was (essentially) always close to a math library that porvides free access to the books (and had the books ordered by rough subject), so that browsing the hard-copies seemed more efficient; however if I ever should be in a situation that the library does not provide free access but one can only order books, then I think I could find this option quite convenient. Say to figure out which (text)books on a given subject are available in the library. (True, often the title can serve as a proxy for this, but it does not always.) Furthermore, I think that in cases of publications in different languages 'keywords' are useful to have just some simple and short bits of information (the keywords) to translate that then already allow to link a publication into a body of literature. [This is not done by us (mathematicians) but those that need to do it depend on us to provide meaningful information to process, so that then later we can find the things]

  3. The point that sometimes well-chosen keywords can convey something on the content of an article that title and abstract do not was already mentioned. I agree.

  4. I think, but do not know for a fact, that meta data of articles (like keywords) is useful/used in order to make general search facilities work better. So, it might be that even if one does not search via keywords directly the fact that some general search mechanism (say general purpose search engine) will work well and turn up the article(s) one is interest will among others depend on the fact that somebody provided some good keywords and they were than incorporated in the electronic resource in a suitable way. Also, some electronic article repositories do suggest related ariticles; I think here also keywords might be used to figure out what is (supposedly) related. [Personally, I so far never found this feature very useful, but then I have to admit it never really paid much attention to these suggestions even. Perhaps I should.]

So, in brief, I sometimes found keywords useful (though not very or in an essential way). Yet, I think to a considerable extent this is due to the existence of the MSC and if it would not exist they would be considerably more important [yet as was pointed out already that MSC works well depends to some extent on keywords]. Also, MSC is 'only' for math so in cases where publications of differing subjects all need to be dealt with (like a general library catalogue, on the web,...) keywords become more crucial. And, some of their use might actually happen 'behind the scenes'. Yet, likely, it is true that to some extent keywords become less relevant as fulltext search and so on becomes more feasible (but this is a reletively recent phenomenon).

Thus, for the question how to use keyword, I would answer for example for searching/browsing where this is supported like Zentralblatt MATH. And, as already mentioned, to get some quick idea what is inside the artcile.

And, for the possibly present implict question whether one should care as an author to provide meaningful keywords when asked to, I would say definitely yes; it might be indirectly of use in ways one does not fully oversee and is not that much work. (And if one does not provided them, somebody whose job it is to add them somewhere might just pick something that seems alright, with best intentions for lack of a different option, but might chose something quite wrong.)

Finally, since we are on MO, the super-brief version:

Keywords are just tags by another name.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, they are in library search systems. Mostly these are used by those searching for non-mathematical works, perhaps, but sometimes of use even for mathematics. $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2012 at 14:41

Yes, there are researchers out there that use them. Yes, there are such mechanisms for search by keyword.

I recommend you educate yourself. Go talk to a reference librarian, or one that works at your mathematics or engineering library. You will likely have your own favorite topic to search, but here are two: cleaning the tube side of heat exchangers, and representing hyperidentities by a set of finitely many identities (finite identity basis).

Gerhard "For Search By Author Use" Paseman, 2012.08.28

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    $\begingroup$ This is not a very helpful answer. $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2012 at 6:16
  • $\begingroup$ I think it matches the tenor of the original post. If Matt Brin had instead asked the question he had in the comments, my answer would be phrased differently, but the fact remains: the people who are likely to know how to use the keywords effectively are those who use them regularly, which I mention above. Without knowing what systems or databases he wants to use, I don't see how mentioning a specific example will help. I invite you to give a more helpful answer. Gerhard "Please Is A Magic Word" Paseman, 2012.08.28 $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2012 at 6:53

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