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How can I use subject headings to improve my searching?

Subject headings are similar to tags or hashtags.  They describe the topic of an item in a database, but unlike tags they come from an official, standardized set of terms and are assigned by cataloguing experts. 

You can use subject headings to

  • Quickly determine the subject of an article or book
  • Search the library catalogue or other library databases more efficiently
  • Discover other items on the same subject

There are several kinds of subject headings used in library databases.  They can be subject-specific like the Medical Subject Headings used in Medline  or more general like the Library of Congress Subject Headings used in the library catalogue.  

 Not all databases use subject headings. JSTOR, Web of Science, Summon, Google Scholar, and Scopus all don't use them.

Where to find them

  • In the item's detailed description (see below)
  • In a sidebar of the search results screen as a way to refine your search
  • In a "Thesaurus" or "Index terms" link in the search form screen


  • index terms
  • thesaurus terms
  • subject terms
  • descriptors

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