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What are subject headings?

When you use Google or Google Scholar or databases such as Scopus or PubMed, you usually type in the obvious-to-you words to get some results. But does everyone else writing on or researching the same topic use the same words that you do?

For example, you might use teens but someone else might use adolescents.

Subject headings can help.

Subject headings are standard terms for particular themes/topics.

When the details of an article (or book) are entered into a database, it is tagged with subject headings for the main topics that it covers, no matter how the author refers to the topic.

Different databases use different subject headings. So in another database, the Subject Heading may be Teenagers.

Advantages of using subject headings

Disadvantages of only using subject headings

Keywords vs Subject headings - from Curtin University Library


Stop and think

Not all databases use subject heading searching, eg Google Scholar and Scopus.

Recent articles in some databases eg Medline (Ovid) have not yet been through the full indexing process and have no subject headings.

Best research practice

  • Uses a mixture of subject headings and your own keywords in those databases that have subject heading searching eg the Ovid databases, CINAHL etc.

Subject headings in Medline and PubMed are called MeSH.

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