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Advanced Searching Techniques: Subject Terms

What are Subject Terms?

Subject terms can save you a lot of time and frustration by limiting your results to articles that are right on your topic. Searching with subject terms allows you to hone in on all relevant research with one search term or phrase. 

A subject term is an assigned word (or phrase) used in a database to describe a concept. Search using this standardized word instead of keywords so you do not need to worry about synonyms and spelling variations. 

  • Subject terms are assigned to each article by a subject specialist (indexer) who has read the article and determined its main subjects. They usually assign 10 -20 subject headings per article
  • Subject searching is like using the index in the back of a book.  It directs you to the information on your subject.
  • Most databases have their own unique subject headings, so when you search a different database, you will need to review their own subject headings (click here for more information). 




How to Find Subject Headings?

Start with a keyword search

Browse the results looking for relevant articles

Look at the subject headings for each result. The subject terms should be listed under the author and publication information.

For example the following book "Talkies, Road Movies and Chick Flicks: Gender, Genre and Film in American Cinema" has the following Keywords:

PERFORMING ARTS / Film / History & Criticism; Gender identity in motion pictures; Motion pictures--United States--Sound effects; Film genres; Romance films--United States--History and criticism; Road films--United States--History and criticism; Women in motion pictures

Visual representative of above instructions

You can also use a database thesaurus

How to Search with Subject Headings

In your chosen database, change the field to "Subject". Type in your subject term(s) and click on search. 

More information about field codes can be found here.

Combining this technique with the "search history" technique will be even more useful.

Visual representative of above instructions

Why Use Subject Headings?

Keyword searches can results in a large number of irrelevant results.

  • The keyword may appear in the abstract, but it may not be the focus of the article. 
  • The keyword may be used in a different context than you intended. 
    • Example: If you search for "AIDS" (disease), your results may include hearing aids, audiovisual aids, clinical aides, teaching aids, etc.

Subject terms reflect the main focus of result, searching by subject is a quick way to narrow your results to a particular topic.

Subject headings yield very precise, focused searches, so as a general rule of thumb, if there is an appropriate subject heading for one of your concepts--USE IT!

However, subject searching should be used as a second step. Try a keyword search first, then see what subjects are recommended to you, or look at the subject headings for useful search results.

Source one and source two

Keywords vs Subject Terms



Subject Terms

  • natural language words describing your topic - good to start with
  • pre-defined "controlled vocabulary" words used to describe the content of each item (book, journal article) in a database                                                   
  • more flexible to search by - can combine together in many ways
  • less flexible to search by - need to know the exact controlled vocabulary term                                          
  • database looks for keywords anywhere in the record - not necessarily connected together
  • database looks for subjects only in the subject heading or descriptor field, where the most relevant words appear                                                               
  • may yield too many or too few results
  • if too many results - also uses subheadings to focus on one aspect of the broader subject                          
  • may yield many irrelevant results
  • results usually very relevant to the topic                      



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