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Advanced Library Research Techniques: Subject vs Keywords

This guide will help you improve your research skills and develop expertise in evaluating, comparing, and selecting reliable and credible sources of information.

Advanced Search Techniques

An effective type of searching involves the subject field and the subject terms. Subject terms use controlled vocabulary to resources that are about something under the same subject term, regardless of the words used by the authors.

For example, the death penalty and capital punishment mean the same thing; some people use “death penalty,” and others use “capital punishment.” This can cause problems when it comes to searching. If you conduct a keyword search using the phrase “death penalty” the computer only searches for items containing those exact words. It does not search for the term capital punishment even though capital punishment describes the same concept. You could miss a lot of important results!


How to Find Subject Terms

The subject terms change for each database so you’ll have to explore each one on its own to discover the terms it uses. Most databases have a thesaurus or subject terms header you can click on to explore.

An excellent way to discover subject terms is to conduct a broad keyword search using the terms or phrases pertinent to your topic. Find a couple of results that closely match what you’re researching and explore the subject terms listed for those records.  Choose the subject terms that come closest to what you’re searching for and jot them down.

For example, here’s a record from Academic Search Complete found in a search for “death penalty”:

Effective Research Strategy