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College of Rehabilitation Sciences: Subject Headings and Keywords

Guide for OT, PT, RT, and MSc Rehab


Subject headings are specific terms or phrases that describe the content of each item in a database. These headings are used to find relevant articles on the same topic.  Searching by subject headings (a.k.a. MeSH or descriptors) is the most precise way to search article databases.

It is not easy to guess which subject headings are used in a given database. You might have to find what term is used for a subject first before using it, for example do you use "Stroke" of "Cerebrovascular Accident?" 

Another way to look at subject headings, and how precise they are, is that they are like headings found in a phone book's Yellow Pages. If you look for "Movie Theatres" you will find nothing, as they are listed under the subject heading "Theatres - Movies."

Keyword searching is how you typically search web search engines.  Think of important words or phrases and type them in to get results.

Here are some key points about each type of search:

Subject Headings vs Keywords

pre-defined specific words used to describe the content of each item (book or journal article) in a database, this is also know as a controlled vocabulary


natural language words describing your topic  good to start with

less flexible to search by - need to know the exact controlled vocabulary term


more flexible to search by - can combine together in many ways

database looks for subjects only in the subject heading or descriptor field, this is the part of the record that only lists subject headings/descriptors


database looks for keywords anywhere in the record - not necessarily connected together

subheadings may be available to focus on one aspect of the broader subject headings  

may yield too many or too few results

results usually very relevant to the topic


results usually very relevant to the topic



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, and then search the database using that subject heading 
  • Check the Help pages for how to search for and use subject headings in your database
  • Search Google for video tutorials on how to use subject headings in your database

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.


Email the CoRS Librarian

Schedule an appointment with the CoRS Librarian for more in-depth help

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