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Best Practices for Developing Search Strategies: 2: Use the right terminology!

This guide describes 6 strategies used by librarians to perform effective searches for better results.

Subject terminology

Each database has its own unique terminology based on the subject content of that database.  Makes sense if you think about it.  After all, if you are searching a medical database for cancer such as Medline or PubMed, then the terms for cancer will be more precise than if you search something like Environmental Abstracts

These terms are know as controlled vocabulary.  What's nice is that you can use both the controlled vocabulary AND everyday keyword terms as you search!  You don't have to limit to just one or the other.

Two Common Controlled Vocabularies

  • MeSH: Medical Subject Headings
    • Used by both Medline & PubMed
  • Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms
    • Used by PsycINFO

These aren't the only ones out there, but chances are these are the two you are most likely to come into contact with as the first is used for the Medline/PubMed database and the second is used for PsycINFO.  What is also great about using these is you can learn additional terms by checking out the scope notes.  Those terms can then be used to expand your search of title and abstract keywords.

How can you find controlled vocabulary terms?

Finding appropriate terms can happen in 1 of two ways:

1st way

Map term

Most interfaces have a way to look up terms.  For example, in Ovid, if you search a single term, you will be taken to a list of terms that you might consider using.



Mapped smoking term

In this case, there are two terms that might be selected: Smoking/ and Smoking Cessation/

For more information searching using the Ovid interface, take a look at our handout:

Strategies for Searching Ovid Medline (pdf)  (located at the bottom of the page)

Even though the content is the Medline database, the strategies described in this handout will also work for PsycINFO which uses the Ovid interface.

In this example, though, Smoking and Smoking Cessation are both MeSH terms so you can use both in your search.  If you check the box to the left of each, and select Include All Subheadings, you will see this when you click  Continue:

Smoking/ or Smoking Cessation/PubMed MeSH lookup

If you are using PubMed, you need to select MeSH from the drop-down menu on the home page.

Enter your term to look up. More assistance can be found in the PubMed video:

Searching with the MeSH Database


abstract and indexing terms

2nd way

If you have an article that is right on the mark, take a look at the terms used to index it.


In this particular article (from Ovid Medline) which is about menthol cigarettes, it has smoking and smoking cessation but notice that one of the terms is Menthol.  That could be added to the total search strategy as a sort of hedge, i.e. just in case some of the other smoking terms didn't appear for some unknown reason.