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Reviewing Research: Literature Reviews, Scoping Reviews, Systematic Reviews: Working with Keywords/Subject Headings

A guide to literature reviews, scoping reviews, and systematic reviews for the School of Architecture & Planning
Last Updated: May 17, 2024 11:33 AM

Working with keywords and subject headings

The difference between keywords and subject headings:

Keyword searching uses any words or phrases that best describe your topic. Keywords are generally broad and use conversational language; gives you more flexibility and will also yield more results. Keyword searches in a database looks for the term everywhere - title, abstract, subject headings, and notes. Keywords may show up in the abstract but not in the full text.

Subject headings are assigned topics from a predetermined list and are linked to other articles in the database with the same topic. The use of a subject heading searching in a database can lead to a more precise search. In a database, subject headings may also be called Descriptions or Terms.

Developing a search strategy: 

Write down your research topic – pull out keywords and phrases. Describe your topic as best you can with keywords.

  • Use a thesaurus to help you find synonyms for your keywords
  • In a database start with a keyword search, using words/phrases that describe your topic
  • Browse the results; choose articles that are the most relevant.
  • Look at the subject/descriptor/term field and write down the terms used
  • Redo your search using those terms
  • Your results will be more precise than your initial keyword search
  • Look at the bibliography of the articles that best fits your topic for additional articles


Boolean seaching


Truncation instructs the database to search for the root of the word you have typed and retrieve any alternate endings. Each database will have its own truncation symbol, but the * is a common one.

Always check the help section when in a database.

It is a way to search for the plural form of the word and alternative endings. example: therap* therapy, therapist, therapeutic

Phrase searching

Most database platforms use double quotation marks "..." to ensure that keywords are searched as a phrase.

"urban planning"

"food literacy"

Saving search strategies

Almost all database platforms have an account feature. Creating an account will allow you to save your search strategies to repeat or refine at a later time.