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Preparing to Write the Literature Review: Keyword Search vs. Subject Search

This guide describes search techniques to help you conduct your review of the literature. It assumes you already have a research problem to investigate and you know how to do basic research. It does not show you how to write your literature review.

What's the Difference?

When you do a keyword search in a database, you are searching many different fields for the words you typed in. Your keywords could show up in the title, the author, source, or the abstract of any article. You get a lot of hits, but your results are not very precise.

When you do a subject search in a database, you are searching one field--the subject field--for the word you typed in. You don't get as many hits, but your results are precise because the subject field has words that describe the main topic of the article.

Think of it this way:

When you do a keyword search, it's like looking around in a hardware store. You will find lots of interesting and useful stuff, but you might not find exactly what you are looking for.

When you do a subject search, it's like asking the store manager to show you where the nails are.

When reviewing the literature of your field for your thesis, do both keyword and subject searches.

Keyword Search

Keyword Search

A basic keyword search follows this syntax:

  • <your keyword>  <your keyword>
  • cats scratching

This search retrieved 49 results in EBSCOhost.

You can narrow down the number of results you get by using more keywords:

cats scratching allergy

This search retrieved 2 results in EBSCOhost

You can expand the number of results you get by using synonyms and truncation:

(cats or kittens) scratch*

This search retrieved 548 results in EBSCOhost.

Subject Search

Subject Search

The reason a subject search is so precise is that the professionals who index articles for databases assign each article several specific words that describe the main ideas in the article.

These words are located in the subject field of the article's record. The indexers use a specific vocabulary to choose the words they assign to each article. This specific vocabulary is listed in a thesaurus.

Different disciplines have different thesauri because different disciplines use different words to describe their unique disciplinary knowledge.

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