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Systematic searching: 4. Finding database-specific subject headings

Looking up database-specific subject headings

Once you have come up with a wide range of keywords, the next step is to check the database-specific subject headings related to your topic. The subject headings are used to check the words used to describe articles on the topic in each database. Since the vocabularies are database-specific, terms need to be checked for each database separately. At this stage, you should therefore have at least a preliminary idea of the databases you are going to search. The subject headings are copied from the databases with all their characters, exactly as they appear in the vocabulary.

Not all databases have their own database-specific vocabulary. In such databases, you can therefore perform your search using only  keywords.

Database-specific vocabularies include:

  • Medical Subject Headings MeSH in Medline and Cochrane Library
  • CINAHL Subject Headings in CINAHL

Why both keywords and subject headings are needed in a systematic search?

  • In controlled vocabularies one term is chosen to describe a specific concept/issue in all articles discussing that topic/issue.
  • The use of controlled vocabularies also facilitates the inclusion of all relevant sub-concepts of a given subject.
  • However, the vocabularies do not always provide a subject heading for all terms, especially for new concepts.
  • Since new subject headings are constantly being added to the vocabulary,  the new headings will not allow you to find older articles on a topic where that heading has not yet been used. 
  • In databases, there is always a slight delay in assigning subject headings to the articles, so searching with subject headings alone will not find the most recent articles.

Give subject headings a try!

Web, Verkkotunnus, Palvelu, Verkkosivusto, Kehitystä

Remember that sometimes controlled vocabularies don't contain concepts and keywords you are familiar with, so think about synonyms and euphemisms.

Subject headings are different in different databases. 

MeSH in Medline/PubMed

MeSH-database -linkki on sivun alareunassa oikealla.

Example topic

Nursing students' hand hygiene skills

Keywords and MeSH terms for searching Medline/PubMed

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
student nurses handwashing competence
nursing students hand washing skills
nursing pupils hand hygiene knowledge
pupil nurses hand sanitation know-how
nursing education  hand sanitization knowhow
"Students, Nursing"[Mesh] hand disinfection "Professional Competence"[Mesh]
"Education, Nursing"[Mesh] hand cleansing "Mental Competency"[Mesh]
hand cleaning "Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice"[Mesh]
surgical scrubbing
"Hand Hygiene"[Mesh]

 

Nursing students' hand hygiene skills

Keywords and CINAHL subject headings for searching  CINAHL.

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
student nurses handwashing competence
nursing students hand washing skills
nursing pupils hand hygiene knowledge
pupil nurses hand sanitation know-how
nursing education  hand sanitization knowhow
(MH "Students, Nursing+") hand disinfection (MH "Professional Competence+")
(MH "Education, Nursing+") hand cleansing (MH "Clinical Competence+")
hand cleaning (MH "Student Knowledge")
surgical scrubbing (MH "Nursing Knowledge")
(MH "Handwashing")
(MH "Surgical Scrubbing")

CINAHL Subject Headings in CINAHL

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