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Subject Terms and Index Searches: Subject Terms

What are Subject Terms?

A subject term is a standardized word or phrase that describes a main idea in the article.

When an article is added to a database, the database will assign subject terms to it from the database's list of subjects. Most articles will have from 3 to 12 subject terms.

Each database has its own list of subject terms. They often use technical jargon and odd punctuation, so you won't be able to come up with the subject terms on your own. You will have to identify the subject terms in the database, and then use them in a search.

If you want to see all the subject terms used in a particular database, you can search the Subject Index.

Where do you find Subject Terms?

Most databases list subjects under each result.

Highlights the subject terms listed under an article result in a database

In other databases you will need to click the article title. Then look for the subjects to the right of the abstract.

subject terms listed to the right of the abstract in ProQuest Central

Once you identify subject terms for your topic, you can use them in future searches.

Simply copy and paste the subject term into a search box, and then change the dropdown to Subject.

subject terms are entered into the search boxes in Academic Search Complete and the select a field dropdown is changed to SU subject term

subject term entered in the search box in ProQuest Central with the dropdown menu changed to subject

You can also search the subject index to find subject terms for your topic.

Specialized Subjects

Most databases make and use their own subject terms, but some databases are known for their specialized lists of subject terms.

  • ERIC Descriptors
  • MESH Headings
  • APA Subjects

Practice the Skill

Completion time: 3 minutes

1) Search the Academic Search Complete database for articles about sports activities for people with disabilities.

What relevant Subject Terms are listed for the articles?

2) Try a new search using those Subject Terms. How does this change your search?