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Search terms and search strategies

tekijä: timapupu Viimeisin muutos tiistai 15. maaliskuuta 2022, 15.51

A search termis any word you use to find information. It can be a natural language word or a subject term found in a database subject index or thesaurus. It's important to use synonyms, since often there are many words that mean the same thing. Eg. joint teaching, co-teaching, teaching together, cooperating teachers, teacher collaboration.

A search strategy refers to what kind of search terms you use, what language you choose, and how you combine the search terms into a search statement, and how you refine your search. Different databases and other resources require different kind of search strategies. 


Your hypothesis is that employee wellbeing has something to do with how committed or engaged the employee is. How would you search for information on this topic? What are the obvious key words you could use? To answer these questions, we need to break the topic apart and look at each aspect or point of view individually. The two basic aspects are 1) employee wellbeing and 2) commitment. Now you could start searching using these words as your search terms. Look at the search results: there will probably be other key words as well: write them down in your mind map. To make sure that you find a reasonable sample of relevant sources, you'll need alternatives and synonyms, as well as other concepts related to the topic:

1) employee wellbeing > wellbeing at work, employee welfare, employee satisfaction
2) commitment > organizational commitment, engagement

Note that general words that don't really mean anything alone, such as "impact" or "effect" should not be used as search terms. Search terms are the essential concepts that represent the different aspects of your topic.

Remember that a common stumbling block in information seeking is getting stuck with one or few search terms that you don't want to change. Sometimes you need to try alternatives, synonyms or narrower and broader concepts. Continue reading to learn more about search terms.

Context is important

Words have meanings that can differ based on the context. Especially in social sciences and humanities, it's important to understand the different contexts of your concepts. The same concept might have a different meaning depending on the academic field (polysemy).

Natural language terms

Natural language words or key words are the basic concepts related to your topic. You can start searching for information with the main concepts and their alternatives or synonyms. These should be listed in your mind map. Use these terms to make trial searches in JYKDOK and scholarly databases. This will help you find new search terms.

Controlled subject terms: thesauri and subject indexes

The following video Thesauri and subject indexes (2 min 26 secs) shows you what thesauri and subject term indexes are, and how you can use them to find information.

Choose English subtitles from the quotation mark icon below the video screen.
(If the video does not work below, use this link to watch the video.)

In addition to natural language terms, you should also look up subject terms/descriptors related to your topic. These are controlled key words found in a thesaurus or subject index of the central databases of your academic field.

Subject terms are words used for describing the contents of the document in a database. A thesaurus is an alphabetical listing of all the subject terms in a single database, used to classify and organize information for that database. The thesaurus shows relationships between terms such as synonymous or related terms, and hierarchical arrangements such as broader terms or narrower terms. Using subject terms as search terms and limiting your search to the descriptor field gives you more relevant results – write the subject term you found in the search box and choose "subject term" from the drop-down menu. Most databases have their own thesaurus and the materials in the databases have controlled thesaurus descriptors.

Finding subject terms from books and articles

You can see the subject terms and keywords in the subject terms section of a particular article or a book in the database. 

Example: An article with the title of  Preparing Early Childhood Educators for Global Education: The Implications of Prior Learning
has many descriptors or subject terms in the ERIC database, such as

Teacher Education, Early Childhood Education, Kindergarten, Best Practices, Thematic Approach, Educational History, Educational Development, School Expansion, Educational Quality

You can usually click on a subject term to conduct a search looking for search results described by that subject term. Follow the links in the subject-section to find more similar articles, or use the descriptors when searching in other databases. 

Subject terms and thesauri in databases 

Subject terms can be found in databases under the name Thesaurus, Subject terms, Subject term glossary etc. You should check the thesaurus of each database you use, because different databases may use different descriptors for the same phenomenon. All thesauri have basically the same structure. 

How to use thesaurus to find subject terms related to Early childhood education in ERIC database:




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