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Resources for Law Student Research Assistants

Searching for Known Articles

When searching for a known journal article using the article's title, author, and other publication information, you may need to consult several search tools.  For articles you cannot locate using university resources, consider placing an interlibrary loan request.  

Searching for Articles by Subject or Keywords

When you want to search for a topic, you can search using words you think of that describe your concept - this is called Keyword Searching. You can also search using words that the database uses to index and describe your topic - this is called Subject Searching. You can think of subject searching as being similar to using the index in the back of a book to find exactly what you are looking for.

What is keyword searching?

Keyword searching uses any words you can think of that best describe your topic. Keyword searches will be broad: title, source and contents of each item will be searched for your keyword(s). This is the reason your searches may retrieve too many, too few, or completely irrelevant items. That is why using this method is a good way to start your research process. A keyword search can be the first step on the way to finding subject headings appropriate to your topic and using them to get more relevant results.

What is subject searching?

Subject searching uses subject headings that come from a predetermined list of possible terms and reflect the content of the item. Most academic libraries use Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) for Subject Search of their online catalogs. A subject search is more specific than a keyword search: it looks in only one field of each record - the subject field. Many databases use subject headings that are unique to that particular database. This controlled vocabulary allows for consistency of terms across the database. For example, Medline database uses MeSH - medical subject headings and CINAHL database also has its own unique headings. These subject headings can be found in the database's thesaurus. In the thesaurus subjects are often listed with broader, narrower, or related subjects. Using the database's thesaurus will help you identify the most effective search terms.

Research Tip

Use both keyword searching AND subject searching to get better results:

  1. Start your search with keyword searching; use your own words that best describe your topic.
  2. After getting results, focus on the most relevant record(s), and among subject headings, presented in them; choose the most suitable subject headings for your topic. In some databases subject headings can also be called "terms" or "descriptors".
  3. Now is the time to turn to subject headings for your further search.
Keyword Search Subject Search
  • Good place to start if you don't know the terms a catalog or database uses for your topic
  • Best way to ensure you get all applicable documents in a catalog or article database
  • Keywords are any significant word or phrase you think of to describe your topic
  • Search terms (subject headings) must come from the database's thesaurus
  • Use when searching for a new concept or jargon - for example, twitter or Pinterest
  • Use when you are searching for a broad concept, such as human trafficking
  • Searches for terms anywhere in the record (database and catalog)
  • Searches for terms in the subject field only
  • Broadens search results but may retrieve irrelevant materials
  • Narrows search results but retrieves all relevant materials available
  • Usually the default search
  • Usually available from advanced search screens
  • More flexible search
  • Less flexible search
  • May end up with too many or too fiew results depending on keywords used
  • Need to know the exact controlled vocabulary term