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Writing 100 (Winek, Spring 2023)

Subject Terms / Thesaurus

Some databases tag their citations with specific terms/phrases known as controlled vocabulary. These are compiled in a searchable index.

  • PsycInfo has a Thesaurus.
  • PubMed uses MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) in a drop down menu to the left of the search box.

*Snapshot of Subjects/Controlled Vocabulary from an article citation in PsycInfo for "Music preferences and empathy: Toward predicting prosocial behavior"

Subject Headings from PsycInfo

These databases do not have a controlled vocabulary list.

Use MeSH Database (controlled vocabulary) from the National Library of Medicine in PubMed.

  • Select MeSH from the search drop down menu (rather than PubMed) or use the MeSH Database link under More Resources
  • Enter the common term, e.g. nosebleed, flu, heartburn,
  • If more than one term is listed, select the desired term with a check mark
  • Or, select subheadings that match your topic interest
  • Click Add to search builder
  • Search for additional terms if desired, e.g. outbreak, causes, therapy, etc.
  • Click Add to search builder
  • Click Search PubMed

Every database has a unique controlled vocabulary!

The word "stress" means one thing to a psychologist, and another to an engineer. Words -- including keywords and subject terms -- will mean different things in different contexts and to different people, particularly those in the professions. Additionally, words used colloquially may have very different meanings from their professional definitions. For example, you may have heard of someone who others call a "narcissist." But that word, used to describe someone who is unusually self-absorbed or conceited, has a very different meaning for a clinical psychologist.

For these reasons, it's important to understand that each field or discipline will have its own controlled vocabulary. Most of the discipline-specific databases will include a thesaurus of terms used by that discipline. It's a good idea to locate the thesaurus or subject terms index in each database before using that database.