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Information Retrieval: Parsing the topic, choosing the search terms

Consider these

  • What is essential about the topic?
  • What is my point of view to the topic?
  • What are the central concepts of my topic?
  • Should I use general keywords or database subject headings?
  • How do I combine search terms together?

Parsing the topic

A mind map or a concept map helps you to construct your knowledge about a topic and to analyze concepts.

A simple mind map

You’re searching information about the ergonomics of violin playing:

  • choose your point of view: teaching – performing – health – anatomy etc.
  • the most important concepts according to the point of view -> synonyms
  • concepts -> search terms

Combine search terms in different ways! Don’t get stuck on one or two search terms! 

Keywords or subject headings?

Choosing the relevant search terms and concepts is the most important part of information seeking process.

Keywords Subject headings
Search terms in your own words Subject terms or descriptors from controlled vocabularies, such as Finto
Flexible, easy to combine A specific spelling
Can return a lot of irrelevant hits More focused results. A keyword describes the central content.
Keyword can appear anywhere in a full-text, from the title to a footnote: easily returns too many results. Entered in a specific field (in contrast to keywords which can appear anywhere in the full-text). You can choose alternative, narrower or broader terms, which affects the results accordingly.

Controlled vocabularies

A controlled vocabulary is a "carefully selected list of words and phrases" which are used to reduce the ambiguity of natural language, and used in thesauri and subject heading systems. A (key)word can be any written word and several words can describe one concept. In thesauri, a concept can only be described with one subject heading.


Finto is a Finnish thesaurus and ontology service in which you can also browse vocabularies. You can choose one thesaurus or dictionary ja search subject headings related to your topic or you can search all thesauri at once. The system also displays related, narrower and broader terms.

Finnish libraries usually use General Finnish ontology YSO (also available in English) and subject specific thesauri like MeSH (Medical Subject Headings). The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is widely used internationally. Additionally many databases use their own vocabularies.

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