If Google can sometimes seem like a mind-reading magical genie, Databases are more like that persnickety substitute teacher who insists you ask “May I” instead of “Can I go to the restroom?” But don’t let that scare you away! Although databases might be a little bit more particular about how you enter your searches, once you become familiar with a few key features, you’ll be able to pull up dozens of relevant, credible, academic articles in far less time than it would take to sift through millions of questionable Google results.
So first, let’s cover the basics of Boolean logic. All this means is that there are three main options for connecting the keywords in your search – AND, OR, & NOT. If you don’t specify, the default for most databases, as well as Google, is to insert an invisible AND. This means that any results retrieved should contain all of the words you typed in the search box. That makes sense, but sometimes it’s helpful to include words that don’t necessarily need to be in every result or even words that you don’t want to see, and that’s where OR and NOT come in.
Use OR to look for all the possible synonyms other writers might use to describe your concept in a single search. Because only one of the grouped terms needs to appear in each document returned, using OR in your search will increase the number of results. If one of your search terms has an alternate meaning or if there’s some other word or idea that keeps turning up and throwing off your results, you can tell the database to exclude it by adding it to your search string with NOT in front of it. This will give you fewer, but hopefully more relevant, results.
Next up, you may have noticed that I have been using quotation marks around terms like “united states” and “higher education.” Quotes are useful when searching for compound phrases, exact quotes, or names. This tells the search engine to look for these words only exactly as you have entered them. It will also ensure that these words are treated as a single term when you combine them using search operators like AND or OR. Looking up a song by its lyrics is one every day example of how quotation marks can help you find exactly what you’re looking for.
Beyond using different combinations of keywords to adjust your results, it is also possible to specify where in each document you’d like those keywords to appear, like as the author, the title, or in the abstract. Each of those different sections of a document is referred to as a field, and you’ll usually find a drop down menu of all the possible fields to search.
Once you find a few good keywords and set up a search that is giving you some relevant results, you can start to narrow down your number of documents by using a few post-search limiters. You can set a date range, focus just on articles from scholarly publications, browse subject terms, and more. As an aside, the full-text check box might seem tempting but it actually might cost you time in the end – just because full-text is not available in one database doesn’t mean that we might not have it elsewhere – so use the article linker button instead to check.
Various databases will look a bit different, but most have many of the same options, so don’t be afraid to poke around and see what’s available. If you’re ever unsure of what a feature does, look for a help icon or just test it out and see what happens to your results.
All of the different options on database search screens can seem a little overwhelming at first, but once you get familiar with a few of them, you’ll have the power to summon relevant, quality research to your fingertips. But remember, database research is a multi-step process – even advanced researchers have to go through trial and error to find a search strategy that works, so if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Find a list of all of the databases that Touro subscribes to, or use the drop down menu to view them grouped by subject, to get started! For more help with library research, don’t forget to check out the Student Services page.
“Database Searching” is just one title from Touro Libraries new Savvy Researcher Video Series. These short (2-5 minute) video tutorials each explain a different topic related to research and writing to focus in on exactly what you need to know, when you need it.