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How do I Research?: Search Terms

A guide to conducting research for OCAD U coursework and beyond

Keywords or Subjects?

Researchers tend to focus intently on search terms as the foremost concern when conducting academic inquiry.  Although seminally important, with the advent of keyword searching capabilities and advanced limiting options in online databases, oftentimes where you conduct research is more critical than what terms you are using.   There are, however, two key terms that are useful when searching for information KEYWORDS and SUBJECTS. 

Keywords

Keywords search:

  • for occurrences of a word in online text, but will not look for SUBJECTS. 
  • through all text in an online document (title, author, table of contents, etc.), but often keyword searches can be limited to occurrences of a word in individual fields (e.g.: words in a title only).

PROS with Keywords, you can:

  • make up your own terms
  • enter topics, artists’ names, titles of books or articles, a publishers’ name, dates
  • join more than one together with Booleans

CONS Keyword searches do not:

  • look up topics, so you often get false results in your searches
  • work for common names or common phrases; for example a keyword search in the library catalogue on art history  will retrieve every book with the work “art” and the word “history” in in title, subject, or contents notes.  So this search will retrieve almost every book in the library collection!

Subjects

Subjects:

  • are specific terms used to describe what a book, website,  periodical articles is about
  • academic libraries use Library of Congress Subject Headings to organize books by topic, a system that combines the subject, geographic area, or time span covered by the publication
  • databases and web sites often use the same organizing principle known as metadata; however, web designers, database creators, and libraries often do not use the same subjects to describe information.

PROS Subject searching allows you to:

  • look up topics
  • look up an artist as a subject
  • find out subject headings that are standardized throughout North American academic libraries

CONS Subject searching:

  • does not allow you to make up your own terms
  • does not allow you to use Booleans to join terms
  • means that you have to use the exact terms that are established for each catalogue, index or database