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Database Searching: Keyword vs. Subject Headings

This guide describes a variety of search techniques that can be used to help improve your database search results. The techniques can be used in any database, but this guide is based on searches performed within Academic Search Complete.

Keywords and Subject Headings

Keywords and Subjects

When you search by keyword in a database:

  • you are searching for words and phrases that can be found anywhere in the text of the item record and/or article.
  • you are not searching for commonly used words parts of speech. Examples include articles, pronouns, and prepositions. Databases do not index commonly used words, which are called stop words. Examples of stop words in databases are: a, an,about, after, all, also, and, any, are, as, at, based, because, been, between, and many more.

Searching by keyword can be a flexible way to find a large number of results. You can use keyword searching as a way to find targeted results: slang, jargon, and new terms work well in keyword searches.


When you search by subject, you are using a term from a pre-defined controlled vocabulary determined by that database. Many databases feature a subject-specific thesaurus of subject terms that relate back to the contents in that database. You will only receive articles that were assigned the subject heading you searched with. For this reason, articles found via subject heading searches can be very reliable. The subject will appear in the record item's subject heading or descriptor field.

Searching by subject can be a very specific way to find targeted results within a specific discipline or research area. This can be very beneficial to your research; however, searching by subject only works if you know which subject terms to search with.

Keywords vs. Subject Headings

Choosing keywords

To select keywords to use for a search, start by writing your topic out as a sentence or question. For example:

"How are children impacted by explicit situations in the media?"

There are several aspects to this question. First, extract key terms from the topic question (bold). Then list synonymous or related terms for each - you have a list of keywords to use!

CHILDREN AFFECT VIOLENCE MEDIA
Kids Impact Language Video Games
Teens Influence Sex Television
Adolescents Conbsequence Drug Use Music

You will learn more about how to combine these terms and how to account for variations in spelling on the other pages of this guide.

 
Searching by subject headings

Searches can be improved by using subject headings (or terms).

 

 

For example, if we did a keyword search for articles on cars we might find a number of relevent documents, but articles that use the terms "autos", "automobiles", or "vehicles" would not be found. However, by consulting the database's thesaurus, or list of subject terms, we can locate the subject heading that would encompass all these terms and then perform our search.