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    Your Ultimate Guide To Using Research Databases

    August 9, 2016 Amanda Cross 9 min read
    Note: This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure for more details. Thanks for supporting the brands that make The Happy Arkansan possible!

    Ahh, research databases. These can be very difficult to use, especially if you have never used them before. The easiest way is to honestly get in there and play around with it a bit, but today I am going to be showing you some excellent tips and tricks to using your libraries databases and research articles to find all the articles you need for any research paper in no time.

    Your Ultimate Guide To Using Research Databases | Click through for six awesome tips, and a video all about using research databases like EBSCOHost, ProQuest, JStor, and more. Using research databases is so helpful when it comes to writing papers in college, and I am giving you the run down on my favorite research tips and tricks.

    1. Understand That This Is Not A Google Search

    A lot of people make the unfortunate mistake of treating research databases like they are Google searches. This is not a good idea, and will likely confuse your database and give you poor results. Instead, you need to be short, sweet, and to the point. Your research database of choice will appreciate it.

    So, instead of asking your research database:

    What is a hate group?

    Search for the following term in your research database:

    hate group

    To a lot of students that probably seems weird, but remember, you shouldn't have the same issues within a library research database that you might have with Google. On Google, if your search hate group, there is a good chance that bunch of irrelevant items come up. Unless you type the statement, “What is a hate group?” You might get some less than stellar returns, and even some links to some hate group websites. That's no fun unless you were researching and looking to stumble upon actual hate group websites.

    With research databases, on the other hand, you are not browsing the entirety of the world wide web, so you don't have to ask your database questions.

    You Want To Be As Succinct As Possible

    So, you see, in the above scenario, I would look up “hate group.”  This would probably lead me to several different sources talking about all areas of hate groups. Some articles may explain what they are as well as different well-known hate groups, how hate groups use certain things like social media/websites, and a whole slew of other data.

    If I wanted to find other terms to use for hate groups, I could search for those. I could look up specific hate groups in the database after being more familiar with hate groups, which would help me greatly as I am writing my research. As you do more research, you are bound to find better search terms and even more content. Keep searching within your databases.

    2. Get Restrictive When Using Research Databases

    Even if I am super succinct in my search terms, I will likely still get way too many search results. After you have a concise search term, it's essential to use the databases advanced search features to get specific.

    Make Sure You Are Only Looking At Peer Reviewed Articles

    The first thing you should do is make sure that you are only looking at scholarly, peer-reviewed articles––especially if you are writing a literature review or your professor calls for this. Sometimes, using things like magazine articles and newspapers are okay, but for the most part, you want to fill your paper with scholarly articles. Databases usually don't check this off automatically, so there is a good chance that your results include pieces that aren't peer-reviewed when you first make a search request. Tick this box and watch your potential sources dwindle (in a good way!)

    Use Boolean Operators

    When I am using research databases, I adore boolean operators. These are three shortcuts that can help drastically reduce or widen your search results. Once you understand them, they can be powerful research tools.


    This is a restrictive boolean operator. It means that you are looking for two things in your research. For instance, if I want to look at hate groups AND I wanted articles just on one particular hate group, I can add that hate group as an AND boolean phrase. The result will be that I will only get articles that mention the word hate group AND the particular hate group I am looking for.


    This is an expanding boolean operator. I don't use this one as much in my research because it can expand the search results too much. Let's go back to my example of hate groups. Maybe I want to look up different types of hate groups. So I might name a hate group, as my original phrase and decide that I don't get enough results from that. Then I might choose to make the boolean phrase “Hate Group #1” OR “Hate Group #2” This will show me articles that include both of the hate groups in the article, but it will also show me articles just about Hate Group #1 OR just about Hate Group #2.


    This is another restrictive operator, but it is not nearly as restrictive as AND. So say, I had a hate group that I didn't want to learn about. I could make the boolean phrase “Hate groups” NOT “Hate Group #3.” This means that I will not be shown any articles that include Hate Group #3 in the article. Depending on how closely related your words are you could end up excluding more than you think, so be careful when you are setting up this boolean operator.

    Check out this library guide from MIT that does an excellent job at teaching you all about boolean operators, probably better than I ever could.

    Restrict The Years You Look At In Research Databases

    Academia has changed a lot over the years, and sometimes you don't want to include specific years in your analysis. Your professor may also urge you to only look at more recent years in your analysis. There is usually an amount of restriction that you can do within a research database using a slider of some sort so that you are only getting the more recent information. I usually try to keep most of my research within the past 15 years if I am doing a paper. If there is an older important work, you can usually find it by observing the recent articles you are looking at.

    Other Restrictions

    There are so many different ways that you can restrict your search:

    • Only Articles You Have Full-Text Access To: I love having full-text articles, but I don't usually tick this box. Most schools have great interlibrary loan systems in place that make borrowing books and articles your school doesn't have moderately easy. It's better to know that an article exists and that you can borrow it from another library.
    • Publisher/Journal: Some publishers and journals are better than others. You can usually sort the articles by the publisher and/or journal so that you can make sure that you are getting top-notch information.
    • Language: Unless you fluently speak another language or languages, ticking the box to get articles in your language is probably a good idea. This can be extremely helpful for making sure you are only getting the most relevant results for you and your language skills.

    3. Quickly Scan Your Sources

    When I am doing research, there are a couple of distinct phases in that research. Some of those phases include looking at the articles in depth, but while I am doing research looking for pieces to collect, I am not a fan of in-depth article reading. It's pretty easy to scan an article to see if it would be of any help to you once you are looking at it. A quick scan of the following will help:

    • What journal was the article published in?
    • What is the title of the article?
    • How long is the article?
    • What school(s) are the author(s) representing?
    • What does the abstract say?
    • When was the article published?
    • What are the introductory/closing paragraphs talking about?
    • How many sources does the article have?
    • What potential biases does the paper have? (This is usually disclosed pretty early on, how did they fund their research?)

    Once you look through some of these things, you can usually easily determine a paper's potential worth to you as a researcher. Don't spend too much time on this, if your gut says the paper is worthless, it probably is.

    4. Have A Master Reference List

    This summer, I got some great behind the scenes looks at one of the professors I was a graduate assistant for and her paper writing process. One cool thing she taught me was all about having a reference master list. She had stockpiled pages and pages of sources, and in the end, only a couple of those pages made it into her final project. This is something I intend to do as I am writing my thesis, and I have already started my thesis master list. Starting this list allows you to stockpile data and sources so that when you are writing your paper, you have a lot of great sources.

    Once I get done skimming the article for its potential worthiness, I download the article to my folder dedicated to the paper I am currently writing. Then I also grab the appropriate citation (usually given by the database website) and add it to my master reference list.

    Once you do more research on the topic at hand, you should be able to do even more separation. You may have many sections of your master reference list devoted to the issues you are covering in your paper. You can re-arrange your master reference list however you would like––and you may even want to go in after a while and add summaries underneath all of the references on your master reference list.

    5. Use Sources To Find Sources

    Listen up. This is the best advice I have ever gotten on finding sources. If you can find ten trustworthy sources, I am going to teach you how to turn those sources into 40-50 sources in no time. Use sources to find sources! When you have an excellent paper that is on brand with the work that you are creating––use that paper's resources section to find more sources. When I am doing research, and I find an excellent paper, I go through their sources one by one looking for sources that catch my eye. Once I find those sources, I look them up on my libraries database. A lot of the time we have the paper I am looking for, and when we don't, I can usually request the article through Interlibrary Loan.

    You could be searching through the resources of other people's papers for literally hours. Once you are done with one paper, you can go on to look at the sources of the papers you just found. It's a never-ending cycle.

    This can create some great sources for your paper, more than anything you could potentially ever do by looking up a million search terms. Yes, your database is great, but why stop there? Let your papers work for you and find all those cool papers you never even knew about.

    6. Know When To Quit

    When you are doing research, there comes a time when you have done all the research that you can. It is essential to know when to quit doing research. Research is excellent, but it can be a time suck when it comes to getting things done on your paper.

    1. Have An End Goal In Mind: Don't just start doing research, you will never finish researching if you don't know why you are researching. It's okay to do a couple of searches without direction, but after a while, you need guidance so you can have a better idea of when you are done.
    2. Have a goal amount of articles in mind: If your paper requires 20 sources, you probably want to look at more than 20 sources, but you definitely shouldn't be looking at 500. Make sure you have a goal in mind of the number of sources you want to gather.
    3. Outline Your Paper: Outlining your paper allows you to better understand the sources you are looking for and what you need for your writing to be successful. Your outline can be a simple one-pager, and this will help you when it comes to researching for your paper.

    Use Research Databases With Me

    I love doing research, and I wanted to walk you through my research process as well as give you a ton of different research nuggets. I filmed this 20-minute video just for you where I walk through an EBSCOHost database and show y'all some awesome tips and tricks. Chances are your school has an EBSCOHost database or two (or even dozens.) Once you get down the basics on one database, it's effortless to transfer that knowledge to other databases (even ones that aren't EBSCOHost) so check out the video below for lots of tips and tricks.

    I hope you found this video helpful and used it to put the words I talked about into action.

    What is your personal favorite research tip/trick?

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    1 Comment

  • Steph Yorke August 13, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    This is so interesting! 🙂 I haven’t had to write a research paper yet, but I’m sure it’ll be coming soon. I love your tips, I usually like to use similar techniques when researching a topic for work. Bookmarking this page for future reference!

  • Leave a Reply

    About Amanda

    Hey Y’all!
    My name is Amanda Cross, and I am the blogger behind The Happy Arkansan. I am a blogger, freelance writer, and podcaster. When I am not creating content for any of my content online, I can usually be found baking, watching YouTube, or napping. I love helping millennials and young adults navigate the mess that is adult life. Keep reading for my thoughts and experiences.

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