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KU Medical Library - Subject Terms

This guide will help you better understand subject terms in research databases, specifically focusing on PubMed's MeSH and Embase's Emtree.

Subject Terms Welcome

This guide will help you learn more about using subject terms to improve your database research skills. This guide will focus on those used in medical resources (such as MeSH in PubMed and Emtree in Embase), though subject terms are used in many non-medical databases as well. The slideshow below offers an introduction to subject terms and the tabs for MeSH and Emtree go into more detail about those specific set of subject terms.

To get started view the slideshow introduction below and then review the tabs on the left.

Understanding Subject Terms Slideshow

Subject terms (sometimes called descriptors or subject headings) are used in research databases to help standardize terms  to describe the content of articles and other resources. Compared to basic keywords, subject terms can help researchers find more relevant materials on a topic. Some of their features include:

  • Controlled Vocabulary: Subject terms come from a controlled vocabulary, a predefined list of terms established by humans which helps ensures consistency. Keyword searching lacks this consistency.
  • Hierarchical Structure: subject term vocabularies typically use a hierarchical structure, including broader and narrower terms. 
  • Standardization: Subject terms are consistent across the relevant database. This helps researchers find all materials on a topic, even if different authors use different terms or phrases in their titles, abstracts, etc.
  • Cross-References: Subject terms sometimes include cross-references to similar terms and ensures researchers do not miss relevant materials.

Other Examples of Subject Terms:

  • CINAHL Headings: Used in the Nursing- and Allied Health-focused database CINAHL.
  • ERIC Descriptors: Used in the ERIC database for educational research.
  • APA Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms: Used in PsycINFO database.