MeSH and text-word search strategies: precision, recall, and their implications for library instruction


  • Michelle M. DeMars Health Sciences Librarian, California State University, Long Beach, Long Beach, CA
  • Carol Perruso Associate Librarian, California State University, Long Beach, Long Beach, CA



Precision, Recall, MeSH, MeSH Instruction, Relevant Recall Method


Objective: This study compared the recall and precision of MeSH-term versus text-word searching to better understand psychosocial MeSH terms and to provide guidance on whether to include both strategies in an information literacy session or how much time should be spent on teaching each search strategy.

Methods: Using the relevant recall method, a total of 3,162 resources were considered and evaluated to form a gold standard set of 1,521 relevant resources. We compared resources discussing psychosocial aspects of children and adolescents living with type 1 diabetes using two search strategies: text-word strategy versus MeSH-term strategy. The frequency of MeSH terms, the MeSH hierarchy, and elements of each search strategy were also examined.

Results: Using the 1,521 relevant articles, we found that the text-word search strategy had 54% recall, while the MeSH-term strategy had 75% recall. Also, the precision of the text-word strategy was 34.4%, while the precision of the MeSH-term strategy was 47.7%. Therefore, the MeSH-term search strategy yielded both greater recall and greater precision. The MeSH strategy was also more complicated in design and usage than the text-word strategy.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates the effectiveness of text-word and MeSH search strategies on precision and recall. The combination of text-word and MeSH strategies is recommended to achieve the most comprehensive results. These results support the idea that MeSH or a similar controlled vocabulary should be taught to experienced and knowledgeable students and practitioners who require a myriad of resources for their literature searches.


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Original Investigation