Search Tools: Databases

A research database lets you search across the text of millions of articles published in thousands of academic journals. General databases have a little bit of everything, like a big retail store. Examples of general databases include Google Scholar, the library’s One Search, and JSTOR. These are good starting points when you’re just beginning your research and shopping around for articles on a wide range of topics; however, we call them “starting points” because you may find there are too many search results to sift through, even with narrow search terms. If you’re getting too many irrelevant results when searching for sources, try not only adjusting your search terms, but also consulting a specialized database.

Specialized databases, like a boutique, contain lots of relevant research on a particular subject/discipline (e.g., psychology) or format (e.g., streaming video). When you’re getting too many irrelevant results in a general database, it can help to try your search in a more specialized database closely aligned to your topic. The number of results you get will be smaller, but the content will be more relevant. Examples of specialized databases include PsycINFO, Political Science Complete, and PubMed.

using databases

Take a look at Marvin’s success in finding information within a specialized database.

O-Prof: Let’s go back to your initial Google search for a minute. Did any Wikipedia articles come up for bottled water?

Marvin: Yeah, and I took a quick look at one of them. But some of my professors say I shouldn’t use Wikipedia.

O-Prof: That’s because the quality of information in Wikipedia varies. It’s monitored by volunteer writers and editors rather than experts, so you should double-check information you find in Wikipedia with other sources. But Wikipedia articles are often good places to get background info and good places to connect with more reliable sources. Did anything in the Wikipedia article seem useful for finding sources on bottled water?

Marvin clicks back to the Wikipedia site.

Marvin: It does mention that the National Resources Defense Council and the Drinking Water Research Foundation have done some studies on the health effects of bottled water (“Bottled Water”).

O-Prof: So, you could go to the websites for these organizations to find out more about the studies. They might even have links to the full reports of these studies, as well as other resources on your topic. Who else might have something to say about the healthfulness of bottled and tap water?

Marvin: Maybe doctors and other health professionals? But I don’t know any I could ask.

O-Prof:  You can look in the library’s subject guides or ask the librarian about databases for health professionals. The Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) database is a good one. Are you logged in to the library? Can you try that one?

Marvin logs in, finds the database, and types in “bottled water AND health.”

Marvin: Here’s an article called “Health Risks and Benefits of Bottled Water.” It’s in the journal Primary Care Clinical Office Practice (Napier & Kodner, 2008).

O-Prof: If that’s a peer-reviewed journal, it might be a good source for your paper.

Marvin: Here’s another one: “Socio-Demographic Features and Fluoride Technologies Contributing to Higher Fluorosis Scores in Permanent Teeth of Canadian Children” (Maupomé, Shulman, Clark, & Levy, 2003). That one sounds pretty technical.

O-Prof: And pretty narrow, too. When you start using sources written by experts, you move beyond the huge porch of public discourse, where everyone talks about all questions on a general level, into some smaller conversational parlors, where groups of specialists talk about more narrow questions in greater depth. You generally find more detailed and trustworthy knowledge in these smaller parlors. But sometimes the conversation may be too narrow for your needs and difficult to understand because it’s experts talking to experts.

Way ahead of the professor, Marvin’s already started reading about the health risks and benefits of bottled water.

Marvin: Here’s something confusing. The summary of this article on risks and benefits of bottled water says tap water is fine if you’re in a location where there’s good water. Then it says that you should use bottled water if the purity of your water source is in question. So which is better, tap or bottled?

O-Prof: As you read more sources, you begin to realize there’s not always a simple answer to questions. As the CINAHL article points out, the answer depends on whether your tap water is pure enough to drink. Not everyone agrees on the answers, either. When you’re advising your future clients (or in this case, writing your paper), you’ll need to “listen” to what different people who talk about the healthfulness of bottled and tap water have to say. Then you’ll be equipped to make your own recommendation.

The library has two tools that are great for exploring databases. The first, database search, provides a searchable index of all the databases to which our library subscribes. Let’s look up PsycINFO. Once you click on a database, you’ll have to log in with your university username and password. Once we’re logged in, let’s search for “narcissism” and see what comes up.

explore the hotspots

Why Use Databases?

You are probably already comfortable with using Google and other search engines, so why take the time to learn about library databases? Well, while they make take some getting used to initially, library databases are far superior for academic research and can provide lots of pertinent results in a fraction of the time you’d need to find the material in a search engine. Here are some other reasons that databases are so valuable:

  • You can access tons of scholarly journal articles as well as find books, reference book articles, popular magazine articles, and newspaper articles
  • Materials in databases are generally evaluated for accuracy and credibility by subject experts and publishers.
  • Databases are reviewed and updated regularly.
  • Library database subscriptions are paid for through your library so you don’t have to pay for articles.
  • The search capabilities enable you to search for focused results.
  • Published content from journals, magazines, newspapers and books does not change.
  • Most materials remain in databases for a significant length of time and can be easily retrieved again.
  • Many databases include a citation tool that will automatically generate an APA style reference for the article you select. You may still need to “tweak” this citation but these tools serve as a good starting point for citing your articles in a particular format.
  • Databases don’t have sponsors, pop-ups, or advertisements.