Database Search Basics

You have a paper or project to do, and your teacher wants you to include academic “research.” In this post, I’ll show you some tips and tricks for getting the most out of the time you spend. A lot of students find the mechanics of database research to be overwhelming–by the end of this post, you should feel more confident.

In an earlier post I explained the difference between types of sources you may be asked to use, and briefly touched on the difference between library holdings and the databases. Today we’re going to focus exclusively on database searches.

What is a Library Database?

Back in the day, before the internet, if a library wanted its students to have access to an academic journal, they subscribed to that journal and received physical copies that they then put on their shelves. If you’ve ever pulled a journal from the library shelf and flipped through it, you may have noticed that what you were holding was actually a hardbound collection of 4-5 softcover journals.

As you might imagine, this system limited the number of journals available to students, because libraries were, and are, limited by the funding they are given to acquire new materials.

Now, however, journal articles are digitized. If you’re logged in to a university system, you may be able to go to a journal’s landing page and read every issue that journal has ever put out. That’s not a very efficient way of finding the research you need, though.

Instead, we rely on databases. Databases index and aggregate journal articles that fall within the criteria set out by the database. Sociological Abstracts, for example, indexes and searches most sociology journals (and also conference proceedings, dissertations, books, and so on). If you’re a biology major, however, you might want the PubMed database; an engineering student, Compendex. Some databases cross over multiple subjects: many of you may have used JSTOR, for example.

These databases are “owned” by parent companies like EBSCOHost and ProQuest. You could think of these companies as “databases of databases,” and generally you can search all of EBSCOHost or ProQuest if you like. You may have noticed that search functions are similar between a lot of journals and then different for others. The reason is that all of the databases maintained by ProQuest use the same search functionality. If you learn to use the ProQuest interface, it will be the same for all of the other databases within ProQuest.

Database Walkthrough

Let’s imagine that your Introduction to Sociology teacher has assigned a research paper that requires three peer reviewed sources. Now, you could conduct a Google or Google Scholar search, but neither of those searches will get you access to articles for free. What you need to do is find the appropriate database through the library. After all, you’ve already paid tuition and fees for the privilege of having the library available to you – you may as well get your money’s worth!

When you go to the library’s main page, you will probably see a search bar that allows you to search the library’s holdings – something like the image below. That’s not what you want.

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 2.58.33 PM

If your librarians have created research guides (as they have in this example), those are great resources. The librarian will have already created a page for your discipline, which has a listing of the most commonly used databases. Much of the work is done for you.

If not, you probably have a “research” button or tab that takes you to the databases that are available to you. As you can see in the image below, I can access 435 databases, in alphabetical order. I can jump from letter to letter, so if I want to go directly to Sociological Abstracts, I can click on the “S” and then scroll for it.

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 6.49.07 PM

Or I can give it a subject – Sociology – and narrow the list considerably. I’ve already said that I like Sociological Abstracts, so I’m going to choose that one.

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 3.05.55 PM

Clicking on the link brings me to the Sociological Abstracts search page. You can see that this database is managed by ProQuest.

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 6.53.54 PM.png

Notice a few things about this landing page. First, it defaults to “basic search.” If you enter a search term here, it will look for that word or phrase in EVERY section of the article – the author’s name, the title, the paragraphs, etc. It will look across all of its holdings for every year that it has data. Chances are good that you’re going to get a ton of hits.

Also notice that it defaults to NOT searching only for peer reviewed articles. If you want peer review, you want to check that box.

I prefer to use the advanced search, just because it gives you more options up front. In the advanced search, you can enter more than one search term and tell it where you want it to look. You can also use Boolean logic to make your search more effective.

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 6.57.24 PM The first box is for my first search term. If I want to search for drug use in children and teenagers, then you would want three boxes: each box under the original search term would have AND selected. You would then search for drug use AND children AND teenagers (or OR teenagers). (Remember check the peer review box!) If I start getting articles for adults, too, I can add another line: NOT adults. I’ll say more about Boolean logic, below.

Screen Shot 2019-05-28 at 9.17.52 AMI can also choose where I want my operators to search. If I’m looking for a specific, author, for example, I can click on the “anywhere” field and get a drop-down list (again, this is in ProQuest – other databases have similar functions but may look different).

Right now, I’m working on an article that deals with a particular person’s theory. I want to make sure that I’ve seen all articles written by that person. So I’m using the “author” selection, paired with the theorist’s name in the search bar. I got 32 hits. Without that modifier, I got 874 hits. Why? Because the search pulled up every mention of that author, and they have been cited a lot.

But let’s say that I’m writScreen Shot 2019-05-28 at 9.19.29 AMing a critical analysis of how this person’s work has been used, and I do want to see other people’s articles. But maybe I want to limit it only to recent work, or articles published within social psychology, or published only in English. In ProQuest, to the left of the screen is a set of tools that allow me to limit the date range, choose a subject, a language, and more. 

By making yourself familiar with the search functions readily available for most databases, you will be better able to narrow your research to what is most relevant for you. When it’s more relevant, it’s also more efficient and less overwhelming.


If you find this blog helpful, considering following – just click on the button to the left!


Do you find the blog content useful? Consider buying me a coffee 🙂 (Well, really, help me defray costs. I’d really appreciate it!)









Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s