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Searching Fundamentals: Select Search Terms


Select Controlled Vocabulary Terms and/or Keywords

Most databases provide the option to use controlled vocabulary terms and keywords in a search. Often you will need to incorporate both controlled vocabulary and keywords to locate the best information to answer a particular question. Read further to discover a little more about each of these search options.


Controlled vocabulary terms, also known as subject headings, are designed to collect all words (synonyms, alternative spellings, etc.) related to a particular concept under a single term.

  • In the health sciences, one of the most widely used controlled vocabularies is MeSH which stands for Medical Subject Headings. MeSH is the controlled vocabulary that is used to index articles for the MEDLINE database.
  • While many databases utilize controlled vocabularies, they do not typically use the same controlled vocabulary. For example, the CINAHL database uses CINAHL Subject Headings and the PsycINFO database uses the Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms®.


Referring back to our search question introduced in Step 1 we can identify the following MeSH terms that would be useful starting points:

  • For the concept acupuncture use the MeSH term → acupuncture therapy [MeSH terms for specific types of acupuncture therapy are also available]
  • For the concept neck pain use the MeSH term → neck pain [you may also want to include literature retrieved by combining the MeSH terms neck AND pain]



Keyword searching is also referred to as natural language searching.

  • When using keyword searches you are responsible for figuring out synonyms, alternate spellings, and other variations that may need to be incorporated into the search to adequately cover your concept.
  • Keyword searching is a great option when you can't find a good controlled vocabulary term match for your concept or the controlled vocabulary term is relatively new and you need to obtain earlier literature.


It is important to recognize that the way you incorporate controlled vocabulary and keywords into your search varies depending on the interface (e.g. OvidEBSCOPubMed, etc.) and the database (e.g. MEDLINE, CINAHLEmbase, etc.) that you are searching.