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What is Research: Search Terms

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; for example, searching the words arts and crafts as a keyword in the library catalogue  retrieves almost 300 book titles because the words arts and crafts are used in so many different contexts.  Note that:
    • if you use quotation marks "arts and crafts" the words will be search as an exact phrase and most titles retrieved apply to the 19th Century aesthetic movement fostered by William Morris.
  • 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; for example, searching the words arts and crafts as a subject yields about 75 titles; however, a keyword search in the library catalogue retrieves almost 300 book titles because the words arts and crafts are used in so many different contexts. 
  • 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