Using Subject Headings

Subject headings are used in many databases. They are official terms that have been selected by specialists to describe the content of a document. This results in documents on the same topic being grouped together. You can use them to quickly find items that discuss your topic even when authors are using different terminology.


One author uses the word “academic success” and a second author uses “educational achievement”. By using the subject heading “academic achievement”, you will retrieve both articles.

Make use of the subject headings or subject terms to:

1. Find new aspects to your topic.

By looking through the list of subject headings, you may discover some perspectives you didn’t know existed.

2. Find related documents.

You’ve found a great article and want to find more documents like it? Browse its subject headings.

3. Focus your search to find more relevant documents.

If you’re pulling up a lot of non-related articles with your keywords, use the subject headings to focus your search.

Tip:   Depending on the database, a list of subject terms may be found under Subject Headings, Thesaurus, Descriptors or List of Subject Terms. Be aware that not all databases make use of subject terms.


  • You’re researching eating habits in relation to obesity but you’re not sure how to enter that in the library catalogue. Which words are the best?

In the library catalogue, start by running a more general search by entering the keyword “obesity”.

This will bring you to a list of results. On the left of the page, under “Topics”, you will find subject headings related to the search you just performed. Click any of them to see a list of books on that subject.

Topics in a library catalogue search.

The subject heading most suited to our subject would be “Food habits”. You can either click it to find books matching that subject or run a new search with those words.

You can also explore subject headings by clicking on any relevant book title in your search results. The subject headings relevant to the book will be listed above the holdings information. Click on one of them to find related books.

Topics in a library catalogue entry.

Many of those subjects headings would make interesting discussion points in a research paper.

  • You’re writing a paper on genocide but when you search in databases, you only find articles about the holocaust. What words should you use to find other articles?

Using Proquest Research Library or Canadian Business & Current Affairs (a Proquest database), open up the thesaurus window by clicking on the “Thesaurus” button on the Advanced Search page. In the new window that opens, do a search on genocide.

The database will give you a list of subject terms. Click on the words for broader or narrower terms. Click on the square beside a term and find the related terms.

Screenshot of the ProQuest Thesaurus.