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How to search in the Health Sciences

What are "Subject Headings" and "Keywords"?

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" or "Cerebrovascular Accident?" 

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


See also...