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Searching with Subject Terms: Home

This guide walks you through how to find and use controlled vocabulary to hone in on the most relevant research.

Searching with Subject Terms

What are Subject Terms?

Subject terms are descriptive words assigned to an article by a database. They are a set of controlled vocabulary that denote the item's subject or main themes. Articles with similar themes, or about similar subjects, will be classified together under a very specific subject heading - instead of scattered under multiple different synonyms or searches. Searching with subject terms allows you to hone in on all relevant research with one search term or phrase. Subject terms can be tricky to find - so watch the video or follow the screenshots below to ensure you can find the correct terms! 

Keywords vs. Subject Terms

Keywords Subject Terms
Natural language used to describe your topic Controlled vocabulary defined by each database to describe the content of an article
Great place to start searching for articles on your topic as keywords are flexible A more advanced search method as you need to know the exact subject heading 
Databases will default to search for keywords anywhere in the record  Database only searches for terms specifically matching in the "subject heading" field
May result in irrelevant articles Results are usually very relevant to topic
May result in too few or too many articles Can use subheadings to further hone in on a subtopic 

Finding Subject Terms

How to Find Subject Terms

Subject headings differ across every database, therefore you first must look up the exact subject term for the specific database you are using. 

1. In many databases, such as PsycINFO (Ebscohost) or SocAbstracts, you can look up subject terms in the Thesaurus. 



2. In PubMed, however, subject terms are referred to as "MeSH" or Medical Subject Headings, and you can look them up in the "MeSH Database."


3. Enter keywords for the subject term you are looking for in the search bar and it will tell you the correct subject heading to use. For example, the correct subject heading for "autism" in the database PsycINFO is "Autism Spectrum Disorder."


4. Then return to the main search page, enter the subject term in the search box and select "SU Subjects" from the drop-down menu to the right of the search boxes. Then click search! 


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Subjects: Research Tips