Subject Searching – OHIO University Libraries


Subject Searching means using search terms that have been devised by the creators of a database to aid searching. Sometimes these terms are called Descriptors; they are similar to Tags that are used in many social media.

Subject Terms are sets of pre-established words and phrases used to describe the contents of library catalogs, such as ALICE, or article databases, such as ERIC or PsycINFO..


In some databases, the set of subject terms is called a Thesaurus–not to be confused with a place for looking up synonyms. Using terms from a Thesaurus is a great way to improve the quality of your search results.

Comparison of Keyword and Subject Searching

The table below summarizes the differences between searching by Keyword and searching using a pre-established Subject Term (or Descriptor).

Keyword Searching Subject Searching

  • most inclusive
  • searches for almost any word in a record

  • fewer records to look at
  • more accurate results

  • can find too many records
  • often finds irrelevant records. Try the examples below to see an illustration of this.
  • you have to think of and enter all possible terms into the search box

  • can be difficult to figure out what terms to use (Example: is it First World War or World War I or World War 1 or World War One? Answer: in ALICE it’s World War, 1914-1918)
Sample List: dog, dawg, canine, canidae, hound, mongrel, mutt, pooch, etc. Sample List [Subject Headings from ALICE]: dogs, canidae
Available in Keyword searches in…

  • ArticlesPlus and other article databases
  • Google, Yahoo, etc.
Available in Subject searches in…

  • Most article databases, including ArticlesPlus
  • Phone Book Yellow Pages

…but NOT in Google or Yahoo