Reviewed and links updated in January 2020.
A note: Using subject headings may seem complicated in the beginning, but they do help to save you time in the long run. They are especially helpful when you are researching a topic over a longer period of time. See this blog’s previous post “What is a subject heading” for more information, or visit the Beryl Ivey Library for assistance at any time. Please note that not all databases categorize their articles with subject headings, though, so it’s important to also know how to use keywords to research.
To research using subject headings, first you need to look them up using a database’s “thesaurus”. Here’s how you do this for journal articles:
- Make sure you understand your topic. Write down some keywords and the different concepts your topic covers.
- Log into a database that would cover your topic (i.e. if my topic is “psychology”, the database PsycINFO is a good choice). If you don’t know which database to choose, check Brescia’s Research Guides for key terms and information on how to find articles (including key databases to try), or the Program Guide pages on Western Libraries’ website.
- Look for a link that says “Thesaurus” or “Descriptors” or “Subject Headings.” This will bring you to the list of standardized subject headings for that particular database. [In PubMed, it’s called “MeSH Database” (Medical Subject Headings Database)].
- Start searching the thesaurus for the list of subject headings on your topic. Make sure to explore all angles of your topic.
- Make a list of the appropriate subject headings you can use to search. In some cases, there may be more than one subject heading that would work (i.e. “women” and “female” may both be subject headings. Another example could be “teaching” and “instruction”).
Once you have your list of subject headings, you can use these to search for articles within that database. I’ve included a screenshot of PsycINFO below: here, you can see that they allow you to select subject headings as a way to search. To search using PsycINFO’s subject headings, I just change the drop down menu and enter the list of subject headings. You can also select the link for “Look up Subjects” to see if it an official subject heading that this database uses. This can be helpful when looking for additional synonyms for your topic.
While most databases come up with their own list of subject headings, some use standardized systems. Our library, for example, uses the Library of Congress system. This means that the same subject headings in our system would work in other university library that use LC. PubMed, meanwhile, uses a system called MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) which can be found in a number of other medical databases as well, such as Medline.
Subject headings can be quite powerful when used with Boolean operators – see a librarian, or refer to our article on Getting Relevant Results: Boolean operators and related strategies!
A warning: if you’re searching for articles using Omni, you may see the limits of “Subject” along the left of your results page. These may help to limit your search, but they are not standardized terms like the ones discussed above. Since Omni works like Google, with computers in charge of creating the list of resources, subject heading searches won’t work.