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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Advanced Library Search Strategies

Learn how to search for articles, books, and other scholarly works through citation chasing and optimal keyword searching. This guide accompanies the Savvy Researcher workshop, "Advanced Library Search Strategies."

Keywords and Subjects

When you search by keyword in a database:

  • you are searching for words and phrases that can be found anywhere in the text of the item record and/or article.
  • you are not searching for commonly used words parts of speech. Examples include articles, pronouns, and prepositions. Databases do not index commonly used words, which are called stop words. Examples of stop words in databases are: a, an, about, after, all, also, and, any, are, as, at, based, because, been, between, and many more.

Searching by keyword can be a flexible way to find a large number of results. You can use keyword searching as a way to find targeted results: slang, jargon, and new terms work well in keyword searches.


When you search by subject, you are using a term from a pre-defined controlled vocabulary determined by that database. Many databases feature a subject-specific thesaurus of subject terms that relate back to the contents in that database. You will only receive articles that were assigned the subject heading you searched with. For this reason, articles found via subject heading searches can be very reliable. The subject will appear in the record item's subject heading or descriptor field.

Searching by subject can be a very specific way to find targeted results within a specific discipline or research area. This can be very beneficial to your research; however, searching by subject only works if you know which subject terms to search with.

Keywords vs. Subject Terms: Guided Practice

Searching by Keyword in Academic Search Ultimate:

Step 1.

  • Scroll down to the icons on the Library homepage. Click on the middle icon, "Databases by Subject & A-Z" (it is an orange computer logo with 'A-Z' on its screen).

  • This is the list of all the Library databases. Since it is organized alphabetically by default, "Academic Search Ultimate" should be the fourth result. It is a broad, multidisciplinary database and a great place to start your research. Click on the title to enter the database.

  • You may be prompted to log in with your Net ID and password.

Step 2.

  • In Academic Search Ultimate, type "smiley face" in the search bar and leave the drop-down menu at the default value, "Select a field (optional)." This is how you do a keyword search in Academic Search Ultimate. Click "Search."

Step 3.

  • Click on the first record, Inconsistencies in the drawing and interpretation of smiley faces: an observational study. On this page you will see information about the article's authors, source, abstract, etc. You will also see a list of of Subject Terms and Author-Supplied Keywords before the article's abstract. Highlighted words are matched terms between the result and your search string.

  • Notice how the database searched not only subject headings and keywords but also the article abstract for to match our keyword "smiley face."

Step 4.

  • Go back to the result list by clicking on 'Result List' above the title of the article. Note that many of these articles are not about internet communication, or smiley emojis/emoticons. Change the search term "smiley face" from a keyword to a subject by changing the drop-down menu from "Select a Field (optional)" to "SU Subject Terms," and click "Search."

  • The database returns 8 results but only some of the articles are about internet communication and emojis/emoticons. This search has become too narrow, and is likely excluding some articles related to what we are looking for.

Step 5.

  • Change the search term "smiley face" back to a keyword from a subject, and add the search term "emoji" as a subject heading. Click "Search."

  • The database returns 48 results, all of which include "emoji" as a subject heading or part of a subject heading, and "smiley face" as a term present anywhere in the article title, abstract, or full-text.