- Subject terms are used by resource providers to describe the themes and content of items and to help you search for items.
- They are organised as hierarchical lists of terms
- Generally used as advanced search options
- Less flexible than natural language search terms but better for more in-depth searches
- Available in EBSCO and ProQuest resources
The companies who make library resources realise that searching their products can be complicated at times, but they do want you to be able to find material that you're looking for and will help you with your work. Basically, if you can't find what you're looking for, you won't use the resource and if nobody uses the resource, no-one will buy it.
Consequently, these companies provide lots of help and assistance to help users find what they're looking for. One way of doing this is using subject terms
What are Subject Terms?
Often called controlled vocabularies or thesauri, subject terms are a list of words and phrases that are used to describe items (articles, books, reports etc) found in a library resource and indicate the item's subject or main themes. They are added to the item before the item is made available in the library resource. Normally an item will be assigned between 5-10 keywords, perhaps a few less or a few more.
Each resource will have its own list of subject terms and often contain technical jargon, odd punctuation and have special rules that will probably stop you from using subject terms in a search without looking at the subject term list
Subject term lists are usually organised in a particular way, usually in a hierarchy - having different levels, for every term there might be:
- Broader term - covering concepts a subject might fall under or be an example of e.g. for magnesium, a broader term might be chemical element
- Narrower term - covering more specific concepts ideas or things e.g, for English Premier League football teams , Arsenal would be a narrower term
- Related terms - covering ideas etc which might be related conceptually don't qualify as broader or narrower terms e.g. birds and ornithology or management and administration might be related terms
- Use - use a different term instead e.g. for doctor use general practitioner
- Used for - a term that should instead of another related term e,g. general practitioners: use for doctor, GP.
There's one important feature of subject terms to note. Subject Terms are standardised. In the paragraph above it says subject terms are "often called controlled vocabularies or thesauri" - so you have three different words or phrases representing the same concept. In a list of subject terms there will be *one* way of representing a concept, so all articles about subject terms will be described by one of subject terms/controlled vocabularies/thesauri. If you remember the film, Highlander, you'll know the tagline "There can be only one". In Highlander, only one immortal can win the prize. In subject term lists, there can be only one word or phrase to describe a concept.
What would happen if you didn't have standardisation? Suppose you were looking for articles about doctors and the subject terms included:
- family doctor
- family practitioner
- general practitioner
You'd miss out on a lot of potentially useful search results because there were too many subject terms used to describe the one concept
Subject Term vs Your Own Search Terms (Keywords)
Uses natural everyday language
A controlled and standardised list of terms defined by each resource to describe the content or themes of an item
Good way to start a search
Can delve deeper into the resource and find more potentially useful results
Used in the resources' basic search
Normally only available in the advanced search option
Searches anywhere in the item
Only searches the subject term field
May return too many or too few results and have to start again
Easier to adjust search (using other advanced search options) to get an appropriate number of results
More flexible - you can use anything as a search term
Less flexible - stuck with a limited number of subject terms
Finding Subject Terms
Subject terms are available in EBSCO and ProQuest resources.
An item's subject terms appear in search results below an items details (see image at top of page) and describe the item's content. An item's detailed record includes subject terms as hyperlinks. Which means you can click on a subject term and see all items in the resource that use that subject term
You can find all subject terms for an EBSCO resource by clicking on the Subject Terms link on the Navigation menu bar on the top left of a page
Click on a term to see it's place in the list hierarchy (broader, narrower terms and others)
ProQuest resources a little differently. An item's subject terms do not appear in appear in search results, but an item's detailed record includes subject terms that can be searched, but don't appear below the item's details. Instead in a separate box on the bottom right of the item detail page. Like EBSCO you can search the resource for these subject terms. Tick the box next to the subject term and click the Search box.
You can access the resource's subject term's list in the Advanced Search page. Here it's called a thesaurus (there's no standardisation between companies).
Click on Thesaurus to see the subject list (which opens as a pop-up window)
Depending upon the resource, you may have to click on the Command Line search ==> Look up terms ==> Look up subjects to find the subject term list, which makes it a little more complicated than EBSCO