Subject Searching

Benefits of Subject Searching

- Does not exclude synonyms or include homonyms.

- The terms entered into a search query do not need to match the terms in a relevant article for the article to be retrieved.

- Makes both more precise and more relevant retrieval of search results possible.

- More modern and less modern terminology for a specific concept both included under the same subject heading, or the user is referred to combine specific, related subject headings.

- The hierarchy of a controlled vocabulary thesaurus is useful for discovering broader topics, narrower topics, related concepts, and even additional keywords for keyword searches.

The best use of subject searching

- Searching library OPACs/catalogs (i.e. ROBCAT, EZ-Borrow, WorldCat) where one specific controlled vocabulary is employed. The classification of book records in OPACs is still of great importance, as the catalog is not physically able to search throughout the text of books on a shelf; e-Books are cataloged similarly.

- When doing more in-depth research in a subject/discipline and searching discipline-specific databases that use particular thesauri. These well-established thesauri are generally based on historical print subject indices (Thesaurus of Psychological Terms = PsycArticles, PsycInfo, CINAHL Subject Headings Thesaurus = CINAHL Plus with Full Text)

- Using a subject heading thesaurus to uncover context and relationships, especially when learning new concepts in an unfamiliar subject area is important and can be truly helpful.
 Drawbacks of Subject Searching

- Only looks for subject terms in the subject heading fields of records.

- For brand new terms and concepts, subject headings have not yet been adopted. Controlled vocabularies are expensive, labor-intensive; terms can become outdated, occasionally archaic, or even offensive prior to an official subject heading change being made.

- Subject terms now generally appear after articles are loaded, (rather than articles being loaded into databases only after they have been assigned various subject headings). This may devalue the importance of subject headings somewhat.

- Subject terms in many online article databases, particularly non-discipline specific aggregate databases, are the result of automated indexing and combining of several thesauri (controlled vocabularies), which is fairly dissimilar from traditional cataloging or indexing done by a human cataloging librarian, using only one controlled vocabulary.

- Especially in terms of aggregate database searching (i.e. EBSCO Academic Search Complete), where multiple subject headings are generally assigned to each article, which subject heading (or combination of headings) to use is not always clear, and requires some amount of trial and error, as searching for the right keyword search combination also does.

- Subject heading searching is seen as too unfamiliar with today’s internet searching public, and an over-reliance of a catalog or database on subject searching may discourage people from using library catalogs or resources completely.