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Research Guides

Journal Research for Graduate Students in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Subject term / Descriptor searching

Some databases employ a set of standard vocabulary, called subject terms or descriptors, to index the articles and make them easier to find. This kind of searching can help you focus your search.

How do you find descriptors or subject terms?

   1. Once you have found a good citation for an article in a database, look at the list of subject terms attached to it.

   2. Use the database thesaurus to look up subject terms. Please note, not all databases have thesauri.


How can you use subject terms?

1. Use them for a subject search. This will narrow your focus to the items in the database that have been designated with that subject term by the indexers. This may improve the quality of your results.

   To do a subject search: terminology is different in each database, but choose "Subject," "Subject term," "Subject heading," or "Descriptor" from the drop-down menu when you enter your subject term.

2. You can incorporate them into a regular keyword search to catch a wider net.

3. In some databases, you can search directly through the thesaurus.

4. Mix and match. Search more "solid" terms with subject headings, and use keyword for softer, or more emergent terms.

Field searching

Many databases allow you to search directly by a variety of fields.


   Look up a prominent author in your field to see what they have written.

Publication / Journal title

   Include the name of a respected journal or publication in your search, in order to find out what articles they have published on the topic.