Why Use Databases?
You may already be comfortable using Google Scholar and other search engines, so why take time to learn about library databases? While they make take some getting used to initially, library databases are tailored to academic research and can provide lots of pertinent results in a fraction of the time you’d need to find the material in a general search engine such as standard Google. Here are some other reasons that databases are so valuable:
- You can access a lot of scholarly journal articles, and also find books, reference book articles, popular magazine articles, and newspaper articles.
- The search capabilities of databases enable you to search for focused results.
- All material in databases is evaluated for accuracy and credibility by subject experts and publishers.
- Although databases are reviewed and updated regularly, published content from journals, magazines, newspapers, and books is relatively stable. Most material remains in a database for a significant length of time and can easily be retrieved again.
- Many databases include a citation tool that will automatically generate an APA or MLA 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.
- Library database subscriptions are paid for through your library so you shouldn’t have to pay for articles.
Types of Databases
General databases have a little bit of everything (like a big retail store). Examples of general databases include Google Scholar, the library articles search, or JSTOR. These are good starting points, but you may find they yield either too many search results to sift through or too much irrelevant information. If so, try a specialized database.
Specialized databases (like a boutique) contain research more limited research to a particular subject/discipline (ex. psychology), or format (ex. streaming video). You can do a more focused search in specialized databases aligned to your topic. The number of results you get will be smaller, but the content may be more relevant. Examples of specialized databases include PsycINFO, Political Science Complete, or Pubmed.
Your library will probably have an “article search” or “database search” link to begin your search. When you search article databases, your results list contains citations to a variety of information sources. Depending on the database, you might also find citations to books or book chapters. For example, the database PsychINFO identifies your search results as scholarly articles, books, book chapters, dissertations, etc. Additionally, databases provide all of the information you need for your citations, should you choose to use the source/s you find through your database search.
The following video explains the concept of databases.
Take a look at Marvin’s success in researching information using a specialized database.
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.
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”).
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.
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 and Kodner).
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” (Maupome et al.). That one sounds pretty technical.
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?
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.