Finding Scholarly Articles and Using Databases

Finding Books

Scholarly articles are often found in journals, which compile several peer-reviewed articles on similar topics in the same place. You will often find these articles in online databases or in the periodicals section of your library, but it is still valuable to find pertinent information in actual, physical, books. Books cover virtually any topic, fact or fiction. For research purposes, you will probably be looking for books that synthesize all the information on one topic to support a particular argument or thesis. They will be especially beneficial if you want lots of information on a topic or want to put your topic in context with other important issues.

To find books, you should look in the library catalog, which is typically the main search bar located on the library homepage. The catalog includes books, reference books, media, maps, and titles of periodicals (like magazines, journals, and newspapers). Note that the catalog does not search for articles within periodicals and journals, and you’ll need to utilize a separate article search to find those.

Search result from a library search. The result shows to look for 4 important things: what library the book is in, the location of the book within the library, the call number, and whether or not the book is available.

Search result from a library catalog search.

You can locate the book by finding the call number. Call numbers are arranged in alphanumeric order. The call number is based on the book’s subject, author’s last name, and publication date (so once you find a book on your topic, you may find something even better by browsing the shelves around it!). Call numbers are designated based on the library’s classification system, which determines how books are organized. Many academic libraries use the Library of Congress Classification, while others use the Dewey Decimal System.

Let’s say you are looking for the book called Cyberspace romance: the psychology of online relationships by Monica Whitty and Adrian Carr. You searched in the library catalog and found the call number: HQ 801.82 .W55 2006. Here’s what that means:

  • HQ: Subclass HQ refers to The Family, Marriage, Women
  • 801.82 refers to Man-Woman relationships, Courtship, Dating
  • W refers to the first author’s last name, “Whitty”
  • 2006 is the year the book was published

Finding Articles in Databases

So far you have learned how to locate a book you want on the library shelves. What if your project also requires scholarly articles?

To find scholarly articles, you need to look in a database. 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 articles search, or JSTOR. These are good starting points when you’re starting out and shopping around for articles on a wide range of topics, but you may find there are too many search results to sift through. If you’re getting too much irrelevant stuff, try a specialized database.

Specialized databases (like a boutique) contain lots of relevant research on a particular subject/discipline (ex. psychology), or format (ex. 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 include Psycinfo, Political Science Complete, or 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 and Kodner).

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” (Maupome et al.). 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.

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 book chapters or to books. Below is an excerpt of search results in PsycINFO. Note the different types of information sources that appear.


Everything you need to locate your article is in the citation: the title of the article, the author, the title of the journal, the volume and issue number, the date of publication, and page numbers.

Screen capture of a search result in a database, showing the title of the article, author, title of the journal, volume and issue number, the date of publication, and page numbers.

You can typically click on the links below the citation to view the text of the article, or your library may direct you to the location of the article.

Why Use Databases?

You are already comfortable with using Google and other search engines, so why take the time to learn about library databases? Well, while it 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, but also find books, reference book articles, popular magazine articles, and newspaper articles
  • Databases don’t have sponsors, pop-ups, or advertisements
  • All material in database is 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 shouldn’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 material remains in database for a significant length of time and can be easily retrieved again.
  • Many databases include a citation tool that will automatically generate an APA or MLA style references 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.

Putting It Together

Watch this video to review the distinctions of a scholarly article and to see why library databases are so valuable to your academic research.