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Guide to Searching

Become a better searcher!

Keyword Vs. Subject Searching

In developing search strategies, many times keywords will be all you need. However, if you don't guess the term the author used for your topic, you will not find that article.

In indexed databases, such as PsycINFO, MEDLINE, CINAHL or ABI INFORM Global, no matter what term(s) an author uses (or neglects to use), there will be one subject term applied for that topic.

Using subject terms can be really powerful addition to your overall search strategy! Read further below for more details:


Keyword searches

will look for your search terms anywhere in the record -- e.g., in the title, abstract, subject heading, or other notes. Keyword searches may be less precise or relevant than searches using subject terms and often return a larger, but less useful, set of results.

Subject searches

on the other hand, only return results in which the search term appears in the subject field.  The subject field contains “Subject Headings” or “Descriptors” - labels pulled from a special list (“thesaurus”) that are used as a way to connect related items and retrieve them all with one search.  The tricky part of subject searching is finding the official subject heading/descriptor words that when searched will pull together all of the related items. Most databases offer a thesaurus that helps you identify subject headings.


Watch this informative video to see how subject terms can be used in a search

Tips to Remember

  • Each database may have its own indexing terms
  • Not all databases use indexing (e.g. Google Scholar and Web of Science)
  • You can use the Advanced search to discover available terms and search options
  • Databases or search engines that pull from multiple sources  may also pull the indexing terms from the underlying databases (e.g. PsycINFO and MEDLINE)
  • Indexing terms are not always how people talk (Latino vs. Hispanic) and may be unique to that database
  • It takes time to add indexing terms to citations; searching only for indexed terms will not retrieve the newest citations
  • Your final search will generally combine both indexed terms (e.g. MeSH, Subject Terms) and other (key) words