Subject Headings

What are subject headings?

Subject headings are tags that are applied to an article. These tags tell you what the article is about. They also tell you what term the database uses for a given concept.

Subject headings can be particularly helpful when:

  • There are multiple ways to describe your search terms (too many synonyms)
  • Your keyword search isn't bring back enough results
  • Your keyword search is bringing back too may irrelevant results

Too many synonyms...

A synonym is a word or phrase that means the same as another word or phrase. Let's talk more about how subject headings help when there are multiple synonyms for your research topic.

Here's an example:

Say you're searching for articles on nosebleeds...

In order to find all relevant research on your topic, you'd have to include all of the following terms in your search:


Nose bleed

Bloody nose

Nasal bleeding


Nasal hemorrhage

In PubMed and CINAHL the subject heading for the concept of nosebleed is epistaxis.

If you used the keywords nasal bleeding in your search, but the author of a relevant article used the word nosebleed, that article wouldn't be in your search results. However, if you did a subject heading search, you'd find all articles about the concept-- the idea-- regardless of what words the authors used to describe that idea.

Not enough results...

Finding the correct keywords for your research topic can be tricky. Often the language we use in every day conversation is different from the language used in the scholarly literature. Sometimes reading an encyclopedia entry or finding a relevant overview can help with identifying keywords, but this doesn't always work. When you're stuck and can't find any relevant articles, don't give up on your search until you've tried subject headings. They have the power to unlock your search.

Too many irrelevant results...

Subject heading searches are fundamentally different than keyword searches, and this difference can be particularly helpful when your keyword search is bringing back too many irrelevant results.

Generally, when you do a keyword search the database simply looks for a match for your term anywhere in the article’s citation.

Let's say you're looking for articles about labor (as in the process of childbirth). A keyword search would bring up articles like this one:

The word labor is in the title of the article, but this definitely isn't about childbirth.

You also might get a result like this:

Or like this:

How did these end up in your search result? The first is authored by Phillip K. Labor, while the second was published in the Journal of Labor Economies. Neither are relevant to your search.

Keyword searches tend to be broader, while searches performed with subject headings tend to be more focused.

For example, if we do a search in PubMed using the subject heading "Labor, Obstetric" we get the following targeted, focused results set:

Databases like PubMed or CINAHL often provide a thesaurus to help you find the subject headings for your concept of interest. Watch the next few videos to find out how to access the thesaurus and use subject headings in specific databases.

Using Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) in PubMed

Using Subject Headings in CINAHL

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Created with images by Double--M - "From the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary"

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