The search value added by subject descriptors in journal databases

Philip Hider


Gross et al. (2015) have demonstrated that about a quarter of hits would typically be lost to keyword searchers if contemporary academic library catalogs dropped their controlled subject headings. This paper reports on an analysis of the loss levels that would result if a bibliographic database, namely the Australian Education Index (AEI), were missing the subject descriptors and identifiers assigned by its professional indexers, employing the methodology developed by Gross and Taylor (2005), and later by Gross et al. (2015). The results indicate that AEI users would lose a similar proportion of hits per query to that experienced by library catalog users: on average, 27% of the resources found by a sample of keyword queries on the AEI database would not have been found without the subject indexing, based on the Australian Thesaurus of Education Descriptors (ATED). The paper also discusses the methodological limitations of these studies, pointing out that real-life users might still find some of the resources missed by a particular query through follow-up searches, while additional resources might also be found through iterative searching on the subject vocabulary. The paper goes on to describe a new research design, based on a before-and-after experiment, which addresses some of these limitations. It is argued that this alternative design will provide a more realistic picture of the value that professionally assigned subject indexing and controlled subject vocabularies can add to literature searching of a more scholarly and thorough kind.

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