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Research Skills Tutorial

Controlled Vocabularies

Subject headings are standardized terms that describe and organize items in databases. They are referred to as a controlled vocabulary. Subject headings are also known as descriptors or subject terms. You can use these terms to find material on the same topic regardless of the words used in the text.

There are different ways to find subject headings:

  • Do a keyword search, browse the results, find the most relevant articles and find the subject headings in the article (it is usually located near the abstract).
  • Browse the database's thesaurus.  It may tell you:
    • Subject heading definitions
    • Year the subject heading was added to the thesaurus
    • List of subheadings for that subject heading
    • Related terms
    • Hierarchy with broader and narrower subject headings (good way to find other possible search terms)

Using Controlled Vocabularies to Enhance Your Search

Whether you have very few search results or too many irrelevant ones, sometimes the best solution to the problem is to use one or two good results you have found to find more like them. One way to do this is descriptor chaining.

When you have a good result or two, see what subject terms are used in those results. You can use those terms to find more relevant results.

Subject Terms

In this example from a record in an EBSCO database, you can see a list of subject terms used to describe this article. These terms can be useful in creating additional searches. 

EBSCO also uses "author-supplied keywords." These terms are not part of a controlled vocabulary but can be helpful in forming searches.

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