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Systematic Search for Health

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Subject headings

Subject headings are consistent lists of terms attached to the record of every article in the database to describe the article topics. They can retrieve most of the literature on a topic regardless of the terminology the author uses to describe the topic. For example, MEDLINE uses the Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) "Hearing Loss", this would find articles that use a variety of terms for hearing loss, e.g. “hard of hearing”, deafness, “difficulty hearing”.

Check out the video (3:12) below for an introduction to what subject headings are and why they're important.

How to collect subject headings

It is important to always use the database's subject heading collection to add subject headings, rather than manually entering them in the search box. This will ensure that you are accurately adding up-to-date subject headings to your search. Each database's subject heading collection and tool will be a bit different but the same principles still apply.


Check out the video (07:12) below to learn how to use MEDLINE MeSH subject headings in the EBSCO platform.

Subject heading essentials

These are the most important facts and frequently asked questions about subject headings. For those new to subject headings it can take a while to get your head around them, so the videos and these FAQs are here to help.

Scope notes

Before adding a subject heading to your search strategy, it is important to check the scope of the subject term to ensure that it is relevant to your topic. In EBSCOHost databases, you can find this definition by checking the Scope note.

image of MeSH page in Ebsco Medline with the scope note open for 'Sports' providing a definition of the meaning of the 'sports' subject heading.

Exploded headings

When you explode a subject heading, the search  term is “exploded”  to include narrower terms that are indexed to that subject heading. In deciding whether it is appropriate to explode a subject heading, look at the subject term hierarchy to see if the subject terms indexed beneath it are relevant.

image of MeSH tool in Ebsco Medline showing Stress, psychological subject heading and the terms within it highlighted and the explode tick box is ticked.

Note: Medline Complete (EBSCO) is supposed to explode all branches. However it only explodes the one level you can see, just like APA PsycINFO (EBSCO) and other EBSCO platform databases.

Major focus

A subject heading that has been identified as a Major focus, which means that it is the main focus of the paper. Because we are interested in this topic whether it's a major theme of the paper, or not. To ensure comprehensive coverage, we will avoid using Major focus fields (eg. MM) as they would not cover all instances of the subject heading.

Why use subject headings?

Combined use of subject headings and keyword searching is recommended for systematic searching for comprehensive results. Adding subject headings to your search strategy may help find relevant literature on the topic which were missed by keyword searching. Subject headings are not available on all topics, are sometimes newly added and do not cover earlier research, and new articles often have no subject headings, meaning the newest literature needs to be searched by keywords.

Why is the history of a subject heading important?

Mesh term Virtual reality is ticked, at the bottom of the blue column is the history note which says the term was added in 2018 and what synonyms it's used forThe subject heading is added to the database in a certain year, and only collects literature from that year onwards. So you will need to investigate the History notes for previous headings you can add to the search to cover earlier research.

*If you are searching Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander populations please see Topic filters.

An example of this is the Medical Subject Heading "Virtual reality" which was only added to MeSH in 2018. This heading will only pick up articles about virtual reality that were written from 2018 onwards.

Subject headings also change and evolve over time because certain topics in health change name as we learn more about them.

An example of this is Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Until 2016 in order to search "Autistic Spectrum Disorder" you had to use the MeSH term "Childhood Developmental Disorders, Pervasive". Meaning that the new heading will only pick up article from 2016 to current. So you need to include both of these headings.

Why do I have to change my subject headings between databases?

Each database has its own unique set of subject headings tailored to align with the database's specific discipline area. Some databases have no subject headings at all. This means that a CINAHL Subject Heading, for instance, is unlikely to appear as a subject heading in SportDiscus.

Database (Platform) Subject heading collection Example of syntax
Medline Complete (EBSCO) MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) MH "Sports"
CINAHL Complete (EBSCO) CINAHL Headings MH "Nurses"
SportDiscus with Full Text (EBSCO) Thesaurus DE "Physical activity"
APA PsycINFO (EBSCO) APA Thesaurus DE "Stress reactions"
Embase ( Emtree 'Australia'/de
Maternity and Infant care MIDIRS (Ovid) No subject headings N/A
PubMed MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) "Sports"[Mesh]
Medline (Ovid) MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) Sports/

For more information on the syntax used with subject headings see Translating your search.

Why can't I make up my own subject headings?

Subject headings are created by subject experts who work for the database vendor. Subject headings are designed to efficiently retrieve studies within the database directly related to your topic. Unlike hashtags in social media, you cannot create your own subject headings.

A common mistake is to misspell or mistype a subject heading, such as MH "Stress, Psychological". It can be easy to leave out the comma or forget whether it's MH "Sport", or MH "Sports". We strongly recommend using the built-in subject heading tool to find and collect subject headings. To prevent errors, use copy and paste to collect headings for your search strategy instead of manual typing.

What if there is no subject heading for my topic?

If you are studying a relatively new topic, or a very narrow field of study, there may not yet be an appropriate subject heading. it is recommended that you use keywords in this case.

Whilst there may be a subject heading for a particular concept in one database, a similar one may not exist in another database. If it's an essential term or concept consider searching for it as a keyword in the other databases.

Why doesn't this MEDLINE article have any subject headings?

Subject headings are added manually by subject experts. This takes time. The newest articles added to a database in the last 6 months may not yet have any headings. We are now starting to see AI used to add headings to new articles, this will speed up the process, but the process is never perfect and some articles may be mislabelled.

Searching for Indigenous populations in Medline 

In 2023, Medline introduced a new MeSh term to capture articles about First Nations people in Australia. This was due to user feedback that the previous subject heading was not appropriate. The new subject heading is: Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

The new subject heading only captures literature from 2023 onwards, so to find older literature it is best to also include the former subject heading in your search, which is: Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

For support in searching for Indigenous populations from other countries, please review the relevant search filter as provided by University of Alberta.