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Health Subject Guide — Pick Search Terms

Research Guide for Health, including Allied Health and Nursing

Pick Search Terms

Great search terms identify the population/subject and interventions/independent and dependent variables. They may include outcomes. They are also narrowly focused.


1. Provide all iterations of your terms.

Databases ONLY find terms EXACTLY AS YOU TYPE THEM. If you only search for the word stress, a database will miss articles with: variant spellings (stressor, stressors, distress), synonyms ("emotional strain", tension), as well as studies that focus on specific types of stress (bullying, grief). We know it's tedious, but provide all term iterations when you search.

2. Use terms that reflect the specific focus of research studies, as well as the broad topic of your research paper.

Researchers examine problems with a very narrow lens. Look at your search terms and ask, "Are there specific types of this population/subject, intervention, or outcome?" If the answer is yes, go back to your search and add the specific terms. When writing articles, researchers use the best words to describe their research, not broad words to describe your topic.

Consider this example: If you want to find articles on emotions, you need to search for the words emotion and emotions, as well as specific types of emotions. Include terms such as happiness, anger, fear, etc.  Why? Researchers often focus on one or two emotions in their studies. If you omit specific emotions, you will miss many articles that focus on those emotions.

3. Do you really need that phrase?  

Phrases are oft misused. If you search for "college students", PubMed will only find citations that have the two words adjacent and in the correct order. Thus, you will miss that great article on "outcomes in college and university students". True phrases are usually proper nouns ("myocardial infarction", "social media", or "Puerto Rico"). Take a look at your phrases. Is it possible that an author did not marry the terms?

Remember that Health databases search:

  • bibliographic citations (title of the article, authors, journal title, volume, issue, pages and year)
  • abstracts (brief descriptions of studies, including: objectives, participants, methods, results, and conclusions)

Databases are dumb (they only search for the words you type exactly as you type them)

Be smart (provide all words and phrases an author could use to describe your topic)

Choose search terms that relate to the population, variables, and outcomes of the research study

Subject Headings and Why They're Worth the Effort

Searching databases is hard, or at least tedious, because of two reasons: 1) Authors use many different words to describe the same topic, and 2) Databases only find words exactly as you type them. This creates a lot of work for the searcher, who has to think of every variation and iteration of words used to describe their topic.

Some databases provide subject headings (aka controlled vocabulary) to resolve this problem. These special terms are programmed to include synonyms and sub-terms.  For example, if you search for the subject heading "anxiety" in PubMed, all the specific types of social anxiety and phobias are automatically included in your search.

When searching PubMed, CINAHL, or PsycInfo, use the thesaurus to find the subject headings for your topics. 

Because subject headings are imperfect, you must use a combination of subject headings and keywords to find all articles on your topic.

PubMed's subject headings are called MeSH, short for Medical Subject Headings. When using any thesaurus, look up one topic at a time.  

thesaurus links in PubMed CINAHL and PsycInfo