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Keyword vs. Subject Searches

Keyword searches 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.

What to Look For

To find subject headings for your topic:

  • Look to see if the database has an online thesaurus to browse for subjects that match your topic (check the Help screens).
  • Some databases publish thesauri in print (e.g. Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms for the PsycInfo database). Ask Us for help using thesauri.

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.
  • Look at the Subject or Descriptor field and note the terms used (write them down).
  • Redo your search using those terms.
  • Your results will be more precise than your initial keyword search.

When to Use Which Kind of Search

Here's a summary of the differences between searching with subject headings and searching with keywords.

Use a keyword search when Use a subject search when
  • you want to get a sense of what is "out there"
  • there are not any well-defined or particularly unique terms for your topic
  • your topic is new or part of an area of knowledge which has a large number of sub-categories
  • you only know the sponsoring agency, organization, or company
  • you have an incomplete or complicated reference to identify
  • your topic is very jargon oriented or you do not know the techical terms for your topic
  • the database you are using does not support subject searches
  • you only want a few highly relevant items retrieved
  • there are well-defined and relatively unique terms for your topic
  • your topic is part of an established and defined area of knowledge
  • you already know the subject headings for the topic you are researching
  • you want to scan the information available on one broad subject
  • you want a list of relevant items in one efficient search—if you have the appropriate subject headings
  • your keyword search has retrieved an unmanageable number of results and you have found appropriate subject headings