Psychology and Education @St. Thomas

Search Terms and Thesauri

Many of my consultations start with this question. “I’ve looked and looked for stuff. But I just don’t know the right words to use. How do I find them?” (Even before the student tells me what they’re looking for…)

A lot of times, students are really just looking in the wrong database. A very general database, a database they’re comfortable with because they used it before. Or perhaps in Google and their topic isn’t too Googleable. Check on our Subject Guides. Or talk with a Librarian about the various databases.

University of Arizona.lLibrarians have put together a table for you to fill out and develop a search strategy using your own mind.

But a big part of the problem with searching is that you’re really trying to get out of your own mind and trying to figure out how other people are describing things. How authors and other researchers are describing what you are looking for. And how librarians and database designers are indexing and organizing articles.

So here are some ideas about using other people’s minds to help you.

  • Read subject specific encyclopedia and handbook articles on the topics you’re interested in. Scour them for words that you hadn’t thought of.
  • Talk with anyone you can corral — especially other students and faculty members (ply them with coffee or chocolates). Make note of how they talk about your topic.
  • Use the thesaurus for the database you’re searching:

There are a couple of ways to do this. And databases and interfaces vary in how good they are at this. But the idea is that you type in the words you’re thinking of, and they give you words that they use to describe the same things. (Duh.) They’ll usually give you the definition they use and other words that describe a broader concept; those that describe narrower; and others that are related. Check out the tutorial on PsycINFO’s thesaurus.

If you are in Ebsco,  Academic Search Premier or SportDiscuss, you can use the Visual Search or the regular search to see what the most common subject terms are in the articles you find. In the regular search, the most common subject terms will come up on the left hand side of the results screen. So for a search on “mindfulness”, you get suggestions to search “meditation” and “mind & body”

Subject suggestions for mindfulness: meditation, mind & body

Subject suggestions for mindfulness: meditation, mind & body

Click on image to enlarge

In CSA databases, like PsycINFO or Sociological Abstracts, the subject terms appear next to the results of individual articles.

If there isn’t enough room to show all of the terms, you can look at the whole article. The nice thing about the CSA database, is that when you find an article that looks good, you can select a couple of the terms that describe it, and the database will search using them together for you. (Don’t choose all of them. Usually the whole set only describes that one article.)

So with this article, since I wanted to look at “how people listen to verbs in a sentence” and used the keywords “sentence processing” and verbs, I might choose complements and syntactic processing. And later verbs and syntactic processing.Click to enlarge image
The more you read and chat, more terms you’ll come upon. Visit me and we can talk and read together! Collaboration helps more than you can imagine. Take care!



  1. […] you use the thesaurus, the results will mostly hit right on […]

    Pingback by Psych, Soc, Ling & Af Am @ the Library » Blog Archive » How to do Library Research on Alternative Medicine — July 29, 2008 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

  2. […] you use the thesaurus, the results will mostly hit right on […]

    Pingback by How to do Library Research on Alternative Medicine « Psychology and Education @St. Thomas — September 29, 2009 @ 7:11 pm | Reply

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