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8. Specialized Databases: How can subject searching help you?

Subject headings are a form of controlled vocabulary. Database creators can define which subject terms are acceptable and assign only those terms as subject headings for each record. The resulting list of terms is often referred to as a thesaurus. When done thoroughly, a thesaurus will not only list acceptable subject headings, but will also indicate related terms, broader terms and narrower terms for a concept.

Subject terms are helpful in situations such as:


Compare Them!

Compare PubMed's MeSH controlled vocabulary to the PsycINFO database's thesaurus search. Put in some slang terms like flu (for MeSH) or multiple personalities (for PsycINFO) - how do these search tools' controlled vocabular deal with these concentps?


Often, the easiest way to find subject terms is to do a general/keyword search in the database and look at the subject terms in records for items that are good matches for your topic.

Try this strategy to find useful subject headings. Remember it by thinking of the letters KISS:

  1. Keyword search your topic
  2. Identify a relevant item from the results
  3. Select subject terms relevant to your topic
  4. Search using these subject terms

Note that some resources will allow you to simply click on those subject terms to perform a search.   Others may require you to copy/paste into a search and choose a subject field.

Subject heading searching can be much more precise than keyword searching, as you are sure to retrieve only your intended concept. It helps in situations where multiple terms may be used for the same concept or in cases where the same word has different meanings.

For example, two different types of cookies from the same database:



Pop Quiz

Time to test your knowledge with this short quiz.


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