Research Skills for Developing Writers: Keywords vs. Subject Terms

An introductory guide to help multilingual undergraduate writers at the U develop their research skills.

Keyword Searching

   When you research in the library catalog or database, you have to come up with search terms.  There are two kinds of search terms you can use: keywords and subject terms.  

   Keywords are the everyday words you use to describe your topic, sometimes referred to as "natural language".  Keyword searches are good if your topic is very new without much information, for web engine searches, and when you want to combine terms using Booleans.  If you are having trouble thinking of a variety of keywords, use an online thesaurus, like to generate more keyword ideas:

How to use an online thesaurus:

#1:  Type your idea into the thesaurus search bar.

#2: Hit 'search'.


#3: Click the speaker icon to hear how the word is pronounced.

#4:  Look at the synonyms and definition to get more ideas for keywords.


Subject Term Searching

Keyword searches often return many irrelevant resources or none at all.  If you want to find the most relevant information for your topic, you will need to do a subject term search. 

Subject terms are pre-determined search words that are controlled by the database you are using.  The word order is often a little different than in "natural language".  For example, if you are researching English linguistics, the keywords are "English" and "linguistics" but the search terms may be something like "Linguistics-English".  You can find the subject terms that a data base uses in the subject headings or subject determiner fields.  In Academic Search Premier, those fields are here:

Subject term searches are the best way for finding lots of relevant resources about your topic.  To find out what the best subject terms are for your topic, do a brief search using keywords, click on a few relevant articles or books, write down some of the search terms you find, and redo your search with the subject terms.  You can also go to Knowledge Commons and ask a librarian to help you find subject terms.   


Graphic Organizers: Comparing Keywords vs. Search Terms

These charts list some of the different keyword and subject term searches and can help you decide which type of search term is right for your research needs.


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