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Systematic searching: 4. Searching for database-specific subject headings

Searching for database-specific subject headings

Once you have come up with a comprehensive list of keywords, the next step is to check the database-specific subject headings or controlled vocabularies related to your topic. Since publications are often described with database-specific subject headings when they are saved in the database, you should also include these subject heading terms in your own searches. Since the subject headings are database-specific, you need to check each controlled vocabulary terms for each database separately. Therefore, you should have at least a preliminary idea at this stage of the databases you are going to perform your searches in. The subject headings are copied from the databases with all their characters, exactly as they appear in the vocabulary.

Not all databases have their own database-specific vocabulary. In such databases, you can therefore perform your search using only keywords.

Database-specific vocabularies include:

  • Medical Subject Headings MeSH in Medline and Cochrane Library
  • CINAHL Subject Headings in CINAHL

Why are both keywords and subject headings needed in a systematic search?

  • In controlled vocabularies one term is chosen to describe a specific concept/issue. This same term is then used to describe all the articles discussing that topic/issue.
  • The use of controlled vocabularies also facilitates the inclusion of all relevant sub-concepts of a given subject.
  • However, the vocabularies do not always provide a subject heading for all terms, especially for new concepts. 
  • Since new subject headings are constantly being added to the vocabulary, the new terms will not find older articles on that same topic, since that term was not used yet as a descriptive term. 
  • In databases, there is always a slight delay in assigning subject headings to the publications, so searching with subject headings alone will not find the most recent articles on the topic.

MeSH in Medline/PubMed

MeSH-database -linkki on sivun alareunassa oikealla.

CINAHL Subject Headings in CINAHL

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Nursing students' hand hygiene skills

Keywords and MeSH terms for searching Medline/PubMed

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
student nurses handwashing competence
nursing students hand washing skills
nursing pupils hand hygiene knowledge
pupil nurses hand sanitation know-how
nursing education  hand sanitization knowhow
"Students, Nursing"[Mesh] hand disinfection "Professional Competence"[Mesh]
"Education, Nursing"[Mesh] hand cleansing "Mental Competency"[Mesh]
hand cleaning "Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice"[Mesh]
surgical scrubbing
"Hand Hygiene"[Mesh]

 

Nursing students' hand hygiene skills

Keywords and CINAHL subject headings for searching CINAHL.

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
student nurses handwashing competence
nursing students hand washing skills
nursing pupils hand hygiene knowledge
pupil nurses hand sanitation know-how
nursing education  hand sanitization knowhow
(MH "Students, Nursing+") hand disinfection (MH "Professional Competence+")
(MH "Education, Nursing+") hand cleansing (MH "Clinical Competence+")
hand cleaning (MH "Student Knowledge")
surgical scrubbing (MH "Nursing Knowledge")
(MH "Handwashing")
(MH "Surgical Scrubbing")