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Subject Terms & Index Searches: Subject Terms

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 assigned.

  • Each database has its own list of subject terms.
  • They often contain technical jargon and odd punctuation, so you often won't be able to figure out the subject terms on your own.
  • You will have to identify the subject terms in the database, and then use them in a search.
  • Most databases make and use their own subject terms, but some databases are known for their specialized lists of subject terms. For example: ERIC Descriptors and MESH Headings.

The goal of this guide is to walk you through locating and using database subject terms to improve the relevance of your database searches. Specifically, this guide will cover:

  • identifying subject terms
  • using subject terms in your search
  • using subject indexes to identify subjects

Locate subject terms

Where you find the subject(s) assigned to an item will depend on the database. Here are some examples from common database providers:


In the EBSCO databases the subjects are listed under the publication information for an item.

For example, for the article "Academic libraries on social media: Finding the students and the information they want," the following subject terms are listed in the Subjects area:

  • academic libraries
  • college students
  • student attitudes
  • surveys
  • information resources
  • social media
  • Indiana



In ProQuest databases, click on the title of the article to be taken to the Abstract/Details page, and then scroll down to the Search with indexing terms box toward the bottom of the page.

For the article "Does corporate social responsibility affect information asymmetry?" the following subject terms are listed:

  • reputation management
  • reputation
  • risk
  • social responsibility
  • asymmetry
  • information
  • studies
  • United States--US

Search with subject terms

There are a couple of ways to search with subject terms.

Subject term as keyword

Use the subject term as your search term and search as usual. This will bring back results with that subject term, as well as results that have the term somewhere else in the information about the item.


Subject term using SU Subject Terms field

Search for the subject term in the subject terms field. In the EBSCO databases, this means changing the Select a Field (optional) drop-down menu to SU Subject Terms. This will just bring back articles that have been assigned that subject term.

Practice the skill

Completion time: 3 minutes

  1. Search the Academic Search Complete database for articles about sports activities for people with disabilities.
  2. What relevant Subject Terms are listed for the articles?
  3. Try a new search using those Subject Terms. How does this change your search?

Video: Subject Terms Search

(1 min 37 sec) Recorded Feb 2016