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Library Subject Guides

Searching for information: a practical guide

Bibliographic databases

Searching for information is not always straightforward. We got a bunch of librarians to suggest some insider pointers and useful techniques.
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In academia we'll often find ourselves using specialist search engines or databases. These are far less sophisticated than web search engines like Google — they don't have quite the same amounts of money and time invested into them, and so don't have the ability to guess what we're looking for using advanced algorithms. This does, however, give us a lot more control over the search, and a lot more clarity about how that search is working. But we will have to be more deliberate and more careful about the search terms we use. We might even have to carry out multiple different searches before we find everything we need.

What's a database?

By database we're talking on this page about any specialist search engine that searches across a specific collection of academic sources. And by academic sources we'll usually be assuming journal articles since that's the most common type, but some databases will contain more than that, or will specialise in particular types of material.


A database searches across several journals, each with multiple articles within them.

If we're looking for academic articles, the obvious place to find them is in a journal, because that's where they've been published. Historically these were physical magazines but now they're mostly online. We could browse individual journals one by one in search of items of interest, and for some niche topics that might actually be sufficient, but most subject areas have a range of possible journals people might be publishing in. We'd have to search through all of them. And while it's true that most journals are now online, we can't just rely on a web search because a lot of content is hidden behind pay-walls — academic publishing is a big business!

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Databases are part of that business. They will buy access to several journals and index them so that you can search across them. That way you can look for information through several journals at once, just like you can look through lots of webpages at once when using a web search engine like Google.

Multidisciplinary databases

Some databases cover content from a lot of different subject areas. These are usually big databases so will potentially return a lot of results, but you will be able to narrow the search down as you go. These multidisciplinary databases are a good starting point for scoping out what's available and are particularly useful if the topic you're researching potentially crosses into different subject areas.

YorSearch

We might consider the library catalogue YorSearch to be a sort of multidisciplinary database. Once upon a time we might have made an effort to distinguish between a catalogue and a database in some way, but these days YorSearch searches across journal articles as well as journal titles and books so it definitely qualifies. YorSearch should index (have in it) information about every journal article we've bought or otherwise have access to, which is a lot of stuff! It can also be made to look wider than the University's subscriptions (though quite what it's looking at when you do that is a bit of a mystery).

Google Scholar

A particularly important example of a multidisciplinary database is Google Scholar. Unlike the other databases we'll consider on this page, Scholar has had some seriously big money poured into it. It's a Google database and so it can use Google's elaborate algorithms to make educated guesses about what you're searching for, meaning that it's the one database where you could potentially just copy and paste an essay question into the search box and expect to find results (and if we're honest, those results will probably even be pretty decent).

Because Scholar is so big and so easy to use, it's definitely a great place to start your search, but we also need to question why it's so big: what's the inclusion policy for Scholar? Is everything it indexes of good quality? You'll need to be extra critical about the sources you find there.

Scopus and Web of Science

The other two big multidisciplinary databases are ones which we specifically subscribe to (in other words the Library has paid money to get access to them). As far as academic databases go, they've had a lot of investment, so they've got quite sleek interfaces and their search tools are pretty powerful. But you'll need to be more precise with these databases than with Google Scholar.

As with Google Scholar, Scopus and Web of Science will both let you explore citing articles — something called citation searching: every search result will have a link to other articles in the database that have cited it.

Subject-specific databases

Most academic databases just index items within a specific subject area. Some are more developed than others, and some will have more content than others. Generally speaking these databases will be smaller than the multidisciplinary databases, because they're covering a narrower area.

You can limit the E‑resources Guide to show databases for specific subject areas, but for more context the best starting point is the Find resources tab on your department's Library Subject Guide. The Subject Guides have been put together by your Academic Liaison Librarian who knows the best databases to use for your particular needs!

Format-specific databases

We're focusing in this section mainly on databases for things like journal articles and conference proceedings but there are also specialist databases for particular types of material such as newspaper articles, theses, and data sets. Again, your Library Subject Guide will have advice on any such databases that are specifically relevant to your subject area. You can also search the E‑resources Guide by "Category":

What's in a database?

What's in a database?

iconYou're almost certainly going to have to search a database at some point. Most of these databases are paid for by the Library. The majority will index articles from specific journals within a given subject-area, but some take in a broader multidisciplinary selection. 

Here's a quick overview of the types available:

Full-text journal archive

Some databases are searching the full text of the indexed documents, and may even make those full texts available to you. JSTOR is a multidisciplinary example of such an archive.

Bibliographic database

Most literature-searching databases are what we call bibliographic databases, and most of the time when we're talking about a database in the context of literature searching we're talking about this kind of database.

Bibliographic databases do not hold, or even search, the full text of a document.

Rather they are just an index of catalogue records, usually consisting of:

  • the article's title (which will usually be descriptive)
  • its authors and their organisations
  • the publication date
  • the publication source (e.g. journal, volume number, issue number etc.)
  • an abstract summary of the article (a few hundred words long)
  • subject headings indicating the content of the article in a few key words.
An archery target. The outer white section represents fancy search algorithms; the black section (the next ring in) represents a full text search; the blue ring is the abstract; the red ring is our subject headings; and the gold at the centre is the title
Depending on the database you're using, the target of your search may be much smaller than you'd like. On this archery target, a bibliographic database presents a much narrower target than say a Google search with its full text access and fancy search algorithms.

When searching this sort of database, most of your 'hits' are going to come from the title, abstract, and subject headings. This is a much smaller target than if you're able to search the full text, which means that your searching needs to be more accurate.

Journal coverage

Different databases index different journals. You may need to do searches in more than one place. And just because an article is indexed in a database does not mean that we necessarily have access to it.

Lets look at an example:

12 major journals

All 12 journals

Let's imagine we're doing a course called Chocolate Studies, and that there are 12 main journals in this discipline. When we're doing our research, we could search each of those journals independently, but that would take a long time. Databases exist to allow us to search several journals at once.

Web of Sweeties

10 of the 12 journals

Ten of the major journals are indexed in Web of Sweeties*, which also covers a breadth of material on other subjects. It's an improvement on having to search through 12 separate journals, but we're missing some important titles.

not a real database

ChocBase

9 of the 12 journals

Nine of the journals (including the two that weren't in Web of Sweeties) are indexed in ChocBase*, which specialises in our discipline of interest. Neither database holds all the important journals, but we can cover those 12 journals by searching both databases separately.

also not a real database

Library subscriptions

8 of the 12 journals

The Library only subscribes to eight of the 12 journals. The databases are searching four titles we don't own, and the full text will not be directly available in those cases. Don't worry though — if you really need access to something the Library doesn't have, there are ways for us to get hold of it for you.

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