How to Search Using Keywords and Subjects

Keyword Searching

How do we narrow a topic? For example, if we search for articles on abortion in Academic Search Complete, you can see by the following illustration that the results are enormous. It helps to narrow a topic early on because it will facilitate how you formulate your thesis statement.

sample search results

When searching databases, you can look for related subject headings. This sidebar appears on the left of the results screen:

subject terms facet

If this isn't helpful, you can get some background information from a subject encyclopedia. The more you know about a topic, the easier it will be to narrow it to an aspect that interests you. You can find pro's and con's on a topic as well as related topics in Opposing Viewpoints in Context

Keywords can be found anywhere in the record. They could appear in the title, the subjects, abstract and the full text of the article. Here is an example of a keyword search for the prevention of diabetes using the Academic Search Complete database :

sample search

A keyword search is broad in nature. This is why it is helpful to AND terms together in order to retrieve relevant results. The keywords in the screen capture are diabetes and prevention separated by AND in order to find results with both terms. If you wanted information on fracking, you might want to use OR between similar terms, e.g. fracking OR hydrofracturing. This would look for either term or both. If you want to exclude a term, use NOT between the terms, e.g., dogs NOT pomeranians. The NOT operator is powerful in that it could accidentally eliminate relevant sources. Sometimes keyword searching does not produce relevant results. In this case, you may wish to browse the subject terms in the record of a relevant article.

Subject Terms or Controlled Vocabulary

The following is a screen shot of a list of subject terms for an article. They are terms that were chosen by indexers to describe the contents of the article so that it can be located easily. In some cases the terms are more specific than what we chose. They are also referred to as controlled vocabulary. This can help you to narrow your search. You may be interested in a certain aspect of diabetes prevention such as nutrition or exercise. If so, you can click on the subject and it will pop up in the search box. Some databases refer to subject terms as descriptors.

sample subject terms

Notice the terms, diabetes and exercise above. A revised search might be:  diabetes AND exercise AND prevention

This is a pictorial illustration of the three search terms combined. The results set is the area in the middle where all three terms intersect.

boolean search diagram

If you need assistance, you can request help by going to the Help page on the Library's Web site.