Comprehensive Searching in the Social Sciences

This guide details instructions and tips for performing comprehensive and systematic searches in the social sciences.

Subject Guide

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What is Subject Searching?

Unlike free text or keyword searching, subject searching uses controlled terms to search the subject fields of indexed resources. Each database has its own index or thesaurus of subject terms which are assigned to resources in that database. These could either be narrow subject areas, such as "Crime victims," or it could be broader subject areas, such as "Social work." Broad index databases, such as Scopus and Web of Science, tend to fall into the latter category. The thesaurus of a database is usually listed as a tab near the top or somewhere in the Advanced Search.

Why Subject Searching?

The vocabulary of subject searching is controlled, which means it gives you incredible specificity. If the subject term in a database is "Minority high school students," you can be sure that every article about that will be assigned that subject term. Subject terms collocate--or group together--resources on similar subjects. The way terms are assigned can come through author-supplied keywords or through other means.

Because there is more than one way to talk about any topic, depending on discipline or even author, subject terms remove some of the guesswork of trying to figure out which words to use to search for a topic.

How to Search by Subject

Scopus, unlike many other databases, does not have a traditional thesaurus. Instead, it uses the Emtree subject terms, which you can view through the Embase database:

An example of Emtree subject terms assigned to an article in Scopus

Not all articles indexed within Scopus will have Emtree terms assigned, but if you can find Emtree terms that are relevant to your topic, you can use them in a subject search.

To perform a subject search within Scopus, go to the Advanced Search tab. On the right side of the page, you will see a "Field Codes" box, where you can view the code for each search field, including Index Terms, Author Keywords, and Keywords. To add a code to your search, click the + next to it and type your term or phrase within parentheses.

The field codes in Scopus for various keyword searches

A sample Index Terms subject search in Scopus

Web of Science has both a broad controlled vocabulary, called Web of Science Categories, and a controlled list of subject areas or disciplines. You can find both of these linked from the Field Tags list in Advanced Search:

Web of Science Field Tags

Once you find the Web of Science Category and/or Research Area you want to search, you can build your search string in Advanced Search using field tags and Boolean operators.

Web of Science Advanced Search

If you are not sure what category or subject area your topic falls into, try finding a relevant article through a keyword search and checking how it is categorized.

Assigned categories on a Web of Science article

Popular Thesauri

Search Strategies

Boolean Operators are used to connect and define the relationship between your search terms.  When searching electronic databases, you can use Boolean Operators to either broaden or narrow your search results.  The three Boolean Operators are AND, OR and NOT.

Boolean Operators

Boolean operators are simple words (AND, OR and NOT) used as conjunctions to combine or exclude keywords in a search, resulting in more focused search results.

venn diagram with "teenagers" in the left circle, "adolescents" in the right circle, and "OR" in their overlap.  All circles and overlap are colored purple.


  • Broadens or expands your search
  • Is used to retrieve like terms or synonyms
  • Finds all items with either teenager OR adolescent
  • In set theory and math, "union" is inclusive "OR".
    "OR" = teenager U adolescent

Venn diagram with the left circle "diet" overlapping with the right circle "children".  The overlap says "and".  The venn diagram is white except for it's overlap "and" which is purple.


  • Narrows or limits your search
  • Used to retrieve unrelated terms
  • Finds items with both diet and children
  • In set theory and math, "intersection" is "AND".
    "AND" = diet children

Venn diagram with the left circle saying "spider", the right circle saying "monkey", their overlap says "not".  The left circle that says "spider" is purple, but the right circle and overlap are white.


  • Narrows or limits your search
  • Finds the term "spider" not "monkey"
  • Use the NOT operator with caution
  • May eliminate relevant records

AND is the default or implied operator in Usearch, Google, Scopus, PubMed, EBSCOhost, and most search interfaces. 
"ecotourism sustainable" is the same as "ecotourism AND sustainable"

In Usearch, EBSCOhost, SCOPUS, and PubMed, Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) must be entered in upper case.

Phrase Searching

Phrase searching is using quotations.

For instance:

"international olympic committee"
"Utah tennis"

It finds the exact phrase, and items with words in the order typed.  One exception is Scopus.  Scopus uses curly brackets or braces for {exact phrase} searching.  In Scopus, quotes are used for "loose/approximate phrase" searching.

Truncation Stemming

Truncation or stemming is using an asterisk *.  It is also known as a wildcard.  Truncation is a symbol that retrieves all the suffixes or endings of a word.

For instance:

school*             retrieves school, schools, schooling, schooled, etc.
latin*                 retrieves latina, latino, latinx, latinos, latinas, latin, latinization, etc.

In the Library of Congress, % (percent sign) is a single character wildcard and ? (question mark) is truncation for multiple characters.


Nesting is commonly used when combining more than one Boolean operator (OR, AND).  Most search interfaces search left to right.  Using parentheses in a search changes the order of operation.

For instance:

(moral* OR ethic*) AND (assisted suicide OR euthanasia)
(ski OR skis OR skiing OR snowboard*) AND video*

Proximity or Adjacency Operators

Proximity operators allow you to find one word within a certain distance of another.

With (w), Near (n), Next (n), or Pre (p) are common proximity operators.

Read the database help to see if proximity operators can be used in your searches.

Thanks to Alfred Mowdood for authoring these instructions.

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