If you’ve never written a research paper, finding scholarly articles might seem daunting. Luckily, there are library research databases—electronic collections of information that are typically online—to help speed up the sometimes tedious process of finding good, trustworthy sources. In these databases, you can search key terms and build a list of sources to use in your paper or project. Depending on the database, this could include books, journal articles, newspaper articles, magazine articles, videos, images, audio files, and more! Here, we’ve answered some common questions about databases in order to make your experience more straightforward.

Why use a database instead of just searching in a web browser?

If you Google a search term, the most popular sites come up—and there’s no guarantee of accuracy. You might find a ton of peer-reviewed journal articles, or you might find a slew of posts from unreliable sites like Wikipedia. On the othe rhand, most databases have content from sources they have reviewed and deemed as credible and accurate. So if you type a search term into a database, you can be sure that only good, dependable sources come up, which saves you the trouble of having to figure out whether something is verifiable or not.

Another database perk is that they can search through information that isn’t readily available on the open web. This may come as a shock, but the information found by Google, Yahoo!, and other search engines represents only a tiny percentage of information on the Internet! This is because of lot of data is secured, meaning you need an account and password to access it. For example, think about your Facebook page. You and all of your friends can access your posts, pictures, and videos, but it is not readily available on the open web. Relatedly, a lot of content from academic journals, newspapers, etc., require a subscription for access. Databases are often the best way to look through this content.

What databases are out there?

There are a ton of databases out there. Many databases revolve around certain subject areas or fields. PsycINFO connects researchers to behavioral and social science articles, LexisNexis is a major provider of legal, government, and business information, and ERIC is a database that contains education-related articles. Some databases, such as JSTOR and Academic Search Premier, cover a wide range of disciplines and subjects.

Your school and public library should have a list of the databases they subscribe to on their site. If you’re unsure how to access them, ask your librarian for help!

How can I cite information from a database?

Believe it or not, a lot of databases have built-in tools that allow you create or export citations in a few styles, including the two most common ones, MLA format and APA format. One tip: Check to make sure you’re using the same  style you’ve used for your other citations. For example, MLA 7 and MLA 8 may be similar, but they aren’t exactly the same and consistency within works cited pages is important. 

Anything else I should know?

Searching on a database is a bit different than searching on the web. When searching on the web, we often use keywords. However, when searching on a database, searching by subject headings, or descriptors, is often a more precise and effective way of searching.

Subject headings are assigned to each article or resource that is found on a database. They are specific labels that describe the main ideas of sources. For example, to find an article about how public librarians help patrons find jobs, a researcher might search for articles that contain the following subject headings: Public Libraries, Career Exploration, and Career Education. Use a database’s “thesaurus” to find the specific subject headings or descriptors assigned to sources. You should see a tab or button to access a database’s thesaurus on the main search screen.

How do I search for items in a database?

Searching for articles from a research database like JSTOR, OVID, or ScienceDirect is slightly different from searching from a normal internet search engine like Google or Bing.

Here are some pointers to help you in your research journey:

  1. Search using keywords

A search using keywords will usually provide the results for that targeted keyword in bold. This can help you find related articles easily, and it is the first step.

  1. Subject searching

A search for keywords in the subject field alone will result in articles having those terms in the subject field alone. This will help you in narrowing down your sources.

  1. Search using phrases

As an extension of the keyword search, you can use particular phrases to find all articles that have that phrase. Type your search phrase within quotations to get narrowed results.

  1. Use Boolean operators

Boolean operators are connectors that connect two or more search results and help you find relevant information. AND, OR, and NOT are commonly used operators to find information. Operators are rules that you set to find relevant information.

Using AND will retrieve articles that have two or more terms. Using OR will retrieve articles that have either the first search term or the second search term. Using NOT will eliminate articles that have that particular term. A combination of AND, OR, and NOT Boolean operators would help find articles of high quality easily and quickly.

How do I utlize a database's thesaurus feature?

While writing a research paper, it is best to research and source data from scientific and humanities databases. While normal search engines are good at providing results from the general web, specialized databases are recommended to get relevant, high-quality data.

Databases tag and provide labels for types of sources, and this can be searched using the “Thesaurus” feature. When you search using the thesaurus feature, other options such as “Term begins with, Term contains,” and “Relevancy” are available, which help to narrow down your search. The EBSCO database allows you to use Boolean parameters such as AND, OR, and NOT, which help to further narrow down your search when using two or more search terms.

Explode:

Using the “Explode” option, you can find all related broader and narrower references that are indexed with that search term. The presence of a plus sign “+” next to a search result indicates narrower terms below a search term.

Major Concept:

Searching using the “Major Concept” option allows you to find records in which the searched topic is a major point in any article. This is helpful to sift data and find the most relevant and important articles in a database.