Subject Term Searching


Library research databases include a subject terms or thesaurus feature to help the researcher find information effectively. Knowing how subject terms or thesaurus features are structured will lead to effective use and retrieval of information.



The goal of this Webquest is demonstrate that you can use the subject terms or thesaurus feature in a database. After you choose a topic, look for subject terms that are assigned to articles in the database you are using. You should complete the Exploring Search Terms form below as you identify useful terms that lead to sources of information about your topic.

Exploring Search Terms



Two possible subject terms to use in finding articles

1. ______________________________________ 2. _______________________________________

What terms are listed in the database’s subject headings or thesaurus?

1. ______________________________________ 2. ________________________________________

Which term widens the scope of the search? ______________________________________________



Which term narrows the scope of the search?______________________________________________


Useful search terms __________________________________________________________________


Misleading search terms ______________________________________________________________


After going through this section, your search of databases should improve because you know

  • that relationships among subject terms are established when listed in a hierarchy
  • each subject term has a relationship in meaning to lists of subject terms which are broader
  • each subject term has a relationship in meaning to subject terms which are narrower
  • exploration of terms should lead you to one which is a right for the topic you are researching

Use of Subject terms within a research database

Subject terms are part of item records. The example shown in figure 1 includes descriptive elements such as Authors, Source, Document Type, Subject Terms, Geographic Terms, Author-Supplied Keywords, Abstract, Author Affiliations, ISSN, DOI, and Accession Number.


Item record with fields highlighted

Figure 1 ______________________________________________________________________________________

To find subject terms to include in your search open the Subject Terms feature which is located on the top the opening page of Academic Search Complete.

Figure 2 - Search Terms Feature in Academic Search Complete

Because subject terms are numerous, examining the scope notes will help determine which term is precise enough to use in the search. The Subject tool in Academic Search Complete displays terms in a hierarchy which consists of terms that are broader in meaning, terms that are narrower in meaning and terms that are related to search term you’ve’ entered.

Let’s say that you want to begin a search on the topic of aquatic resources.

The relationship of aquatic resources to other terms includes several things—a Scope note, a list of Broader terms, a list of Narrower terms, and what the term is Used for.

Aquatic Resources subject hierarchy

Figure 3 Aquatic Resources Heading

1. To add subject terms to the search field, you can mark one or multiple terms and click the ADD button.


Figure 4 Subject Terms Browse Feature

2. By clicking on Add, the term is pasted to the search field.

 Figure 5 Search Term Pasted into Search Field

Take a minute to test your understanding of hierarchical subject lists of terms. Choose the term with a broader meaning in the following groups.

Which term has a broader meaning?

a. lakes b. bodies of water

a. water resources b. ground water resources

a. fresh water resources b. streams

The Subject Terms feature in Academic Search Complete uses the Subject Tree Hierarchy which is a way to show relationships between one subject term and other related terms. Understanding a Subject Tree Hierarchy will be helpful in other areas of library research.

A Subject Tree Hierarchy is a list of terms presented so that the relationship of terms is visually shown. The broad term is listed on top and terms underneath that term are less broad in definition. Each level is indented. This structure is known as a hierarchy.

Conservation of Natural Resources (Term = broad)

          Water Conservation (Term = Second level less broad)

                      Water Conservation Projects (Term = Third level less broad)

Retrieval of search results

By choosing to use a subject term such as stream restoration in a search rather than exploring the subject features, your results will be fewer in number but more useful.

Figure 6 Stream Restoration subject term

A search by subject of Stream Restoration brought back 324 full text items. 


Figure 7 Search results for Stream Restoration subject term

Figure 8 Item record with Subject of Stream Restoration 

To ease the discovery of articles, databases designed by EBSCO including Academic Search Complete have integrated a feature called “Find equivalent subjects” into the search engine. If you choose Advanced Search and choose Smart Text searching, you will see that “Find equivalent subjects” is checked by default. Say the search term you enter is “restore streams.” Follow some steps to see how many results in full text are found.

1. Click on advanced search and check Find all my search terms

Figure 9 Advanced Search form

2. Enter a keyword like restore streams

Figure 10 keyword entry in Advanced Search form

3. Results in full text include 212 articles

Figure 11 Search results 

In comparison, entering Subject Terms returns 324 results that are immediately relevant. At the same time the Advanced Search form returns 212 results on a keyword phrase restore streams. Either the subject terms method or the keyword phrase should be  

Using the Subject Terms feature returns 324 results that are immediately relevant. Academic Search Complete and other Ebsco databases have an Advanced Search option. By marking Find All My Search Terms, the example above delivered 212 results. These results are likely to have a broader subject range, which is still helpful part of the research process.


  • You should be able to correctly arrange subject terms in a subject tree hierarchy.
  • You should be able to browse the subject headings and paste a subject heading into the search field.
  • You should evaluate the usefulness of a specific subject term in obtaining the results that will be useful in your research.
  • You should use the hierarchies of broader and narrower terms and state how such exploration helped you obtain relevant results.


Assessment of concepts covered in Subject Terms Searching Lecture

1. If a subject term is used in a search rather than a keyword, the results returned will be

a. more broad b. less broad

2. In a hierarchy of subject terms, the broadest term is listed above other terms

a. true b. false

3. When a search term is entered into a database and a search performed, the database chooses items at random to include in the results list

a. true b. false

4. Which of the two terms below has a broader meaning?

a. fresh water resources b. streams


Use of subject terms to search databases increases knowledge of how a database retrieves relevant articles. Through a process of exploring the relationships of subject terms to other terms, the researcher develops skill in the choice of subject terms on which to perform searches of the database. There are built-in features of databases such as Academic Search Complete that enhance discovery of articles. Enhancements in the advanced search of the database include checkboxes to “Find all my search terms” and “Apply equivalent subject terms.” These enhancements are helpful to speed the discovery of articles and provide an alternative method to intensely exploring subject terms.

Searching as Strategic Exploration is one Frame within Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education addressed by this WebQuest.

Knowledge Practices in this frame inform learners to: 

  • understand how information systems (i.e., collections of recorded information) are organized in order to access relevant information;
  • use different types of searching language (e.g., controlled vocabulary, keywords, natural language) appropriately.

WebQuest developed by Steve Thompson, Outreach Librarian, Rock Valley College, Rockford, Illinois USA

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