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Database Search Tips: Keywords vs. subjects

Helpful tips on database searching.

Look For

Use a keyword search when: 1. your subject search is unsuccessful 2. You want to combine terms 3. When there is not much information on your topic. Use a subject search when: 1. You know the subject terms in a database 2. When you want the most relevant sources.

To find subject headings for your topic:

  • Brainstorm some synonyms for your topics online (search topic + Synonyms)
  • Check the "subject" filter on the left sides of the screen after you do a database search. This will lead you to other words. 

Another way to find subject headings:

  • Start with a keyword search, using words/phrases that describe your topic.
  • Browse the results; choose 2 or 3 that are relevant.
  • Find the linked "tags" in the description of the articles. Write them down or click on one. 
  • Redo your search using those terms.
  • Your results will be more precise than your initial keyword search.

What are subject headings and keywords?

Subject headings describe the content of each item in a database. Use these headings to find relevant items on the same topic.  Searching by subject headings (a.k.a. descriptors) is the most precise way to search article databases. It is not easy to guess which subject headings are used in a given database. 

Keyword searching is how you typically search web search engines.  Think of important words or phrases and type them in to get results.

Here are some key points about each type of search:

  • 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