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Health Sciences Advanced Search

This guide is designed from postgraduate level students working on primary research projects or dissertations.

Advanced Search using Controlled Vocabulary

                            Search Results spelled in Scrabble

The most basic aspect of searching online for resources is using the search terms that are right for the specific tool you are searching in.

The words you type into search boxes in search engines, catalogs, and databases are crucial. Misspell a word? Get poor search results. Use the wrong word?  Get irrelevant results.

In short, executing a search of the literature BEGINS, not in looking for articles and books, but looking for SEARCH TERMS. Accomplish that task and searching the literature will be a breeze.


When searching, you should use as many words as possible (synonyms) to describe the topic concept you are researching. You need to use formal terms as well as informal. For instance, if you are looking for research articles about people over the age of 65, you might use informal search terms such as elderly, senior, older adult, as well as formal terms such as geriatric.

You also need to think even broader to include differences in spelling between countries. For example, if you use the term pediatric, You'll need to include the British spelling paediatric as well, so you don’t accidentally miss an excellent study.

Informal Search terminology used by the general public is called Natural Language. You use natural language everyday.

Many commercial databases, REQUIRE special kinds of search terms to dig out "the good stuff," however. Natural language just won't work.

Formal terminology used in commercial databases is called Controlled Vocabulary. Database companies in partnership with publishers decide which terms to designate as Controlled Vocabulary. You, the searcher, have to use their terms... not your own.

Controlled Vocabulary is used in Library Catalogs and Databases as well as on the Internet when searching for scientific research literature.

                                 take control key

The advantage of using formal terminology is tht it ensures clarity and precision in searching the health sciences literature. The words fit the concepts exactly. It's not stroke; it's anterior cerebral artery infarction.

                                  Brain Cancer Terms    

Our one saving grace in all this search terms stuff, however, is that the Controlled Vocabulary used in the commercial databases and in the Deep Web doesn’t come from our own brains. You aren’t born knowing this specialized vocabulary.

Instead, information specialists have created huge dictionaries / thesauri of those words and have made those lists searchable for anybody to use when digging into commercial databases. You just have to know this special search-enhancing terminology exists and that special terminology-finding tools exist and where those special terminology tools are located.

In this Guide, we will look at Controlled Vocabulary tools in several different databases and in several different areas of the health sciences so you will be able to choose the correct formal search terms chosen specifically for your topic, even if that topic is cross-disciplinary.

Four Controlled Vocabulary Tools

The next few pages will identify the Controlled Vocabulary Tools available to anyone searching the Literature.

  1. PubMed MeSH (Medline MeSH is the same tool. It just looks different.)
  2. CINAHL Headings
  3. PsycINFO Thesaurus
  4. ERIC Thesaurus

Each page will provide a short video demonstration showing how to use the Controlled Vocabulary Tool.

Each video will also provide a demonstration showing how to export literature citations to RefWorks.