University libraries offer access to many online academic databases that can yield good results if the right strategies are used. They are one of the best sources to turn to when you need articles from academic journals, books, and other periodicals.

Searching an online research database is much like searching the Internet, but the results will be scholarly articles and other academic sources, depending on the topic. However, academic databases are different from generic search engines, and that’s why we’ve compiled a number of tips for you to start using databases for academic journals specifically.

Use the campus network to access research databases

Most academic databases are not free to access. As authoritative resources, these multidisciplinary databases are comprehensive collections of current literature on a wide range of topics. As they have a wide variety of publications, public access is sometimes restricted.

Your institution has to pay for staff and students to access magazines, books, documents, and so on, so they can only use them when they’re on campus.

Find databases specifically related to your topic

Around 2.5 million articles are published each year. Therefore, it is important to search the appropriate database for the reference you need. Comprehensive databases usually contain topic-specific resources and filters, which will help you narrow down your search results. Otherwise, you’ll have to filter out too many unrelated documents that won’t give you the reference you want.

Ask a librarian or check your library’s list of A-Z resources to find out which databases you can access. If you don’t know where to start, you can check out the three largest academic database providers




Configure the search parameters within the database to be as limited as possible

Start with a database. Narrow down your search terms to get the most pertinent information from the academic resources you’re reviewing. Determine what options are available to do so, for example, narrowing the search by including only articles within a specific date range, or unchecking certain types of magazines or newspapers that are included in the database but have nothing to do with your topic.

Also be sure to use very specific keywords when searching for scientific journals in library resources. If your university’s library has a specialist in your field, you can contact them to guide you on keywords and other search strategies specific to the topic and database.

Find the tricks that help you get results

Unlike what happens in a Google search, typing complete sentences will not give you satisfactory results. There are different methods for searching different databases. Ask a librarian or do an Internet search about the best way to search your preferred database.

Slowly expand your search for additional results

A specific search may not yield as many results. This may be good because these results are most likely current and applicable. However, if you don’t get enough results, slowly expand the date range, journal type, or keywords.

From there, you’ll be able to find a wide variety of related white papers, books, academic journals, and other potential results that you can use for your research.

Use the professional functions of the database

Search engines and academic databases are getting smarter. In the age of big data and text mining, many databases crunch millions of scientific articles to extract connections between them. Pay attention to things like

Related relevant articles

Similar academic resources

List of “cited by” or “quotes”

List of references

All of them will take you to another very relevant academic literature

if necessary you can move to another, more general database

When you’re done searching one comprehensive database, you can move on to another to find more results. Some databases covering the same topics may offer you the same search results, but they may also cover a whole range of different journals or online resources.

You may prefer the search system from one database to another based on the results you get from keyword searches. One database may have more advanced search options than the other. You can also try a more general database such as:

Web Of Science



Look at the big players in your field

There are experts in all fields, people who have published a lot of academic content on their topic, people who meet or interview a lot and who seem to be present almost everywhere. Pay attention to those names when searching a database, and once you’ve found someone interesting, you can search for more of that person.

Also, take note of seminal articles, or those works that have been repeatedly cited within your field. Many of the major academic journal databases have features that allow you to quickly determine which articles are cited most often.

Use AND to combine keywords and phrases when searching for journal articles in electronic databases.

Unlike Google and other search engines, you won’t get satisfactory results if you type in an entire sentence, such as “the effect of media advertising on teen consumers.” You have to select the key phrases, words and concepts. Example:

Mass and adolescent and consumer advertising and media

If you type multiple words without Y between them, some of the article databases will assume that you only want articles in which those words appear right next to them, and in that same order.

Use truncation (an asterisk) and wildcards (usually a question mark or exclamation).

Child* and education

Globalization” and analysis

Child* makes child, children, childhood and any other word that begins with the root “child” appear. This works in most databases.

Globalization” shows articles with the words globalization or globalization.

If you don’t use truncation and wildcards, some databases will look for an exact match to the words you type, and some relevant material may be lost.

Warning: If you shorten the root word too much, it will bring irrelevant elements (soc* will bring society and social and socioeconomic, but also Socrates).

Find out if the database you use has a “topic search” option.

For example, under Medline, click MESH.

In Ethnic Newswatch, in the advanced search, search for the thesaurus or click on “Look Up Subjects”.

In Academic OneFile, search for the Subject Search Guide, instead of using the large search box.

For some topics, subject search works better than keyword search, which is usually the default.

Fewer results may appear, but the search will be more accurate.

Use keyword search results to discover the subject headings (descriptors) used in the database. Normally, they will appear at the end of the article or somewhere in the quote. For example, when doing a keyword search for “girls and prostitution” you will find that Academic OneFile uses thematic terms such as “child prostitution” and “child sexual abuse.”

Use your imagination

Think of all possible ways to express your topic. Brainstorm until you’ve exhausted all possibilities. An article about global warming may not have the phrase “global warming” anywhere. Instead, the title may contain the words “surface temperature records” and may have been assigned the subject heading “climate change” by a cataloger.

For best results, use the word O within the parentheses. Example:

(AIDS or HIV) and (television or movies or cinema)

(adolescent* or adolescence*) and (girl* or woman) and aggression

Face your investigation like a detective, looking for clues in everything you discover

When you start finding information, keep an eye out for the “big names” in your area of research, for example, key people and organizations. Look at the names of people who are often quoted in the news; the academics who research your topic and the universities they are affiliated with; activists and leaders working on a political or social issue; spokespersons and influential figures.

Next, search for books and articles written by them. If a person has spoken at a conference, find out if the proceedings of the conference are available (on a website, or in our library, or through interlibrary loan). Check the bibliographies and footnotes of the books and articles you find, and see if our library has the materials cited by them. Find out if there is a local or national organization related to your topic.

See what information is available on your website. You can contact the organization by phone or email to find out what information they provide to the public and if they have staff who can help you learn more. The websites of municipal, state, and federal governments often publish a lot of valuable information, such as statistics and reports.

Browse the shelves in your subject area

Searching the library catalog through Scholar OneSearch and getting the exact signature and location is almost always the most efficient way to find books on your topic or books from a particular author, but flipping through the shelves is a great way to get acquainted with the collections – and you can flip through using Scholar OneSearch as well as search the shelves.

The books are organized according to the Library of Congress’ classification system. The letters do not correspond to anything, they are more or less randomly assigned, for example:

Books on education are in section L. The business ones are in the HB-HG section. Politics is in the J. Science and math materials are in section Q. Health sciences are in section R. Engineering is in section T.

How do you know which subjects correspond to each letter? Check out this list:

When searching for books, use broader terms than when searching for articles.

Example: Instead of Title IX, try Sex discrimination in education

The themes and keywords in the books usually describe what the book is about as a whole, that is, the main themes, not all the topics that are covered. In article databases, topics describe what the article or chapter in a book is about. This means that sometimes you can search for “needle in a haystack” in article databases. That kind of search rarely works so well in the library catalog.

Don’t limit yourself to a single database or a single set of search results.

Look in a database that covers many topics (e.g., Academic Search Premier or Scholar OneSearch), as well as a database specializing in one topic (e.g., Communication and Mass Media Complete for communications, MLA Bibliography for literature). The same search phrase entered into two different databases can yield very different results.

If your topic covers more than one major subject – business and art, for example – try searching a business database and an art database. Ask at the reference desk for our recommendations. Try different phrases; try the same search across multiple databases. Don’t settle for the results of a single search.

Do not discard non-full-text databases.

If you’re doing more than just superficial research, don’t avoid using a database just because it doesn’t have full text; it can be the most comprehensive index for your topic. You will be able to get the quote and abstract; the article may be available in print on the shelves of our library’s magazines. Search both full-text and abstract-only databases to get the best insight into what’s available. If you find a citation and do not see the full text in the database, search the list of electronic journals for the title of the journal, to see if the article is available to you electronically, as an affiliate of Northeastern.

You might want to start with a database that contains some full text, but don’t let your search stop there.

(For more information on how to locate full-text articles in print or electronic form, see the online tutorials section of our library called Full-Text Localization.)

And, of course, ask a librarian if you have any doubts.

Don’t waste time if you get stuck or run into something confusing. A librarian at the research desk can save you time and help you find better information, more efficiently. For example, we can suggest the best databases for your topic. We can show you the most effective way to search for articles by a specific author (TIP: it is not normally searched by keywords). We can advise you on search strategies and techniques tailored to your topic.

In addition, a librarian may provide references to other sources and collections outside of Northeastern University. We can know that there is a good collection of local history materials on its subject at the Boston Public Library. We can tell you what other libraries in the Boston area have the medical journal you’re looking for. Suppose you’re researching advertising: we can tell you, for example, that Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library is a good place to find popular women’s magazines, such as Seventeen and Good Housekeeping, dating back to the forties or earlier.

If a quick stop at the reference desk is not enough for your needs, it is possible to make an appointment for a research consultation with a specialist librarian in the field.

Our specialists wait for you to contact them through the quote form or direct chat. We also have confidential communication channels such as WhatsApp and Messenger. And if you want to be aware of our innovative services and the different advantages of hiring us, follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

If this article was to your liking, do not forget to share it on your social networks

Sources Consulted:

Anders ME, Evans DP: Comparison of PubMed and Google scholar literature searches. Respir care. 2010, 55: 578-583.

Sampson M, Tetzlaff J, Urquhart C: Precision of healthcare systematic review searches in a cross-sectional sample. Res Synthesis Methods. 2011, 2: 119-125. 10.1002/jrsm.42.

Booth A: How much searching is enough? Comprehensive versus optimal retrieval for technology assessments. Int J Technol Assess Health Care. 2010, 26: 431-435. 10.1017/S0266462310000966.

You might also be interested in: A thesis of the UVigo works on the creation of a system to predict red tides in real time

How to search online databases

How to search online databases. Source: Unsplash. Credits: Tran Mau Tri Tam @tranmautritam

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