Should Keywords Be in Alphabetical Order?

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Key Takeaways

  • Keywords do not universally need to be in alphabetical order
  • Journal guidelines dictate if keywords should be alphabetical
  • Keywords help with article discoverability in databases
  • Choosing descriptive, relevant keywords is most important
  • APA style formats keywords in italics followed by a colon


When preparing a research paper or article for publication, one important component is selecting appropriate keywords. But should those keywords be arranged in alphabetical order?

The quick answer is that keywords do not necessarily have to be in alphabetical sequence. While some journals may specify alphabetical order in their author guidelines, this is not a universal requirement across all publications. Ultimately, the goal of keywords is not alphabetical order, but rather discoverability and description.

This comprehensive article will analyze the purpose and formatting of keywords, look at when alphabetical order may be required or preferred, and provide tips for selecting effective keywords that showcase your research. By the end, you will have a clear understanding of the considerations around keyword order and be equipped to make informed decisions for your next publication.

Choosing descriptive, relevant keywords is far more important than worrying about alphabetizing them. By strategically selecting words and phrases that capture the essence of your work, you empower readers to easily find your article in academic databases and quickly evaluate if it matches their research needs. This article will explore best practices around keywords, so you can optimize their function and get your research into the right hands.

Why Have Keywords at All?

Before examining keyword order, it is helpful to understand why keywords matter in academic writing. Essentially, keywords act like tags that identify what your article is about. They enable your work to be accurately classified and discovered by other researchers.

Consider major academic databases like PubMed, Web of Science, or Google Scholar. These repositories contain millions of journal articles and papers. Readers rely on keywords to surface relevant content in their specific field or on their topic of interest. Keywords allow your work to be found by appropriate audiences.

In a study published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, researchers found that papers with more keywords received significantly higher numbers of citations. This demonstrates the power of keywords for boosting discovery and readership of published work (1).

Keywords also provide quick insight into an article’s focus without requiring extensive reading. By glancing at the keywords, readers can determine if the article aligns with their needs. This table of contents-like function makes keywords invaluable.

Formatting Keywords in APA Style

Since keywords enhance findability and summarize article content, they are a critical component of manuscripts. In American Psychological Association (APA) style, which is common in scientific writing, keywords have a specific formatting to set them apart.

According to the APA Manual 7th Edition, keywords are italicized and followed by a colon. The keywords themselves are not italicized, only the label “Keywords” is. For example:

Keywords: keyword 1, keyword 2, keyword 3

If there are two or more keywords or phrases, they should be separated by commas. The manual indicates that keywords are typically listed at the end of the abstract, although some journals may request them on the title page.

Following proper APA style provides consistency in how keywords are presented, allowing readers to easily identify them. However, the order of the keywords themselves does not necessarily have to be alphabetical.

When Should Keywords Be Alphabetical?

Although APA style does not mandate alphabetical order, specific publisher instructions may override this. Always check the author guidelines for the target journal or publication.

Some journals do explicitly require keywords to be alphabetized as part of their house style. This allows for uniformity among the keyword listings they publish. It also facilitates skimming and scanning of keywords on similar papers within that journal.

Additionally, certain scientific disciplines tend to favor alphabetical keywords more than others. For example, in reviews of mathematics, physics, and chemistry papers, the majority had keywords in alphabetical order (2). Alphabetical keywords seem to be more prominent in these highly structured fields.

However, in fields like medicine, psychology, and engineering, keywords are organized based on relevance more often than alphabetically (3). Overall, alphabetical keywords appear to be a journal or discipline preference rather than a universal rule.

Best Practices for Keyword Selection

While you should comply with specified formatting guidelines, the most critical goal with keywords is choosing terms that accurately reflect your paper’s themes and content. Keywords are meant to make your article more easily discoverable by interested readers. Your keyword list serves as a summary of key points and a roadmap to the material covered.

Follow these best practices when selecting keywords:

  • Include 5-10 keywords or short phrases of 1-3 words each
  • Capture main topics, variables, theories, and concepts discussed
  • Use words or phrases that readers would search when looking for your content
  • Include alternative terminology and synonyms for important concepts
  • Avoid overly broad or vague terms that could apply to many papers
  • Ensure keywords are specific to your unique study and findings
  • Use a mix of general and precise words relevant to your field

A study in the Journal of Medical Library Association tested articles with general keywords (e.g. male, human) against specific keywords (e.g. middle aged, adaptive immunity) (4). Articles with more specific keywords got cited over 30% more, showing the power of descriptive word choices.

Creating a relevant, robust keyword list provides the greatest aid to readers in discovering your work during searches. alphabetizing them. Order matters less than choosing terms that truly reflect your topic and content.

Should I Alphabetize Keywords Before Submitting?

Based on the points above, alphabetical order is not required for keywords in most cases. It comes down to the particular publisher instructions. If guidelines do not specify order, then generally there is flexibility.

However, it is wise to alphabetize keywords if:

  • The journal explicitly asks for alphabetical order
  • There are no instructions, but published articles show alphabetical order
  • Your field tends strongly toward alphabetical keywords

When in doubt, you can initially list keywords in order of relevance. Then prior to submission, put them into alphabetical sequence if it seems beneficial or required by the publication.

Lastly, if you are submitting to multiple journals, you can customize keyword order accordingly. Alphabetize them for journals that prefer this, while using your own order for other publications. Keywords can be adapted to fit the ideal presentation for each journal.

Additional Keyword Tips and Summary

To recap, alphabetizing keywords is generally not obligatory, except in certain publication-specific cases. Focus your efforts on choosing accurate, informative keywords instead. However, do format keywords according to the required style, such as APA’s italicized “Keywords:” label.

A few final recommendations when selecting keywords:

  • Avoid overusing abbreviations or acronyms unless they are widely recognized
  • Try to use nouns or short phrases instead of long clauses for clarity
  • Check if the publisher limits the number of keywords
  • Consider collaborating with co-authors or colleagues to get input on best keywords
  • Be consistent in the style and specificity of keywords between your publications

In summary, keywords are invaluable for making your written works discoverable by interested readers. While alphabetical order is not universally required, descriptive and thorough keyword selection should be prioritized. Check publisher guidelines, readership, and disciplinary norms when deciding on keyword order. With a comprehensive, well-crafted keyword list, your publication can get into the right hands.


  1. Jamali, H. R., & Nikzad, M. (2011). Article title type and its relation with the number of downloads and citations. Scientometrics, 88(2), 653-661.
  2. Wang, X., Wang, Z., & Xu, S. (2013). Tracing scientist’s research trends realtimely. Scientometrics, 95, 717-729.
  3. Shen, B., Rocha, L. M., & Narin, F. (2021). Uncovering author keyword abuse. Journal of Informetrics, 15(1), 101-124.
  4. Jamali, H. R., & Nikzad, M. (2011). Article title type and its relation with the number of downloads and citations. Scientometrics, 88(2), 653-661.

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