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Choosing and Using Library Databases: Choosing a Database

This guide will help you choose and use library databases more effectively.

Tools for Finding Databases

Why Use Just One?

  • If you don't find what you need in one database, try another!
  • Searching a second database for a different but related subject can also provide useful breadth for your topic.

Know What's in the Database!

The key to finding the right database is knowing what's in it. Here are some questions to ask about any database before you use it.

What Subject Area(s) Does It Cover?

Note what subject areas are covered to ensure that you are using the correct database for your topic. Searching for engineering articles in PsycInfo won't get you far.

In addition, your choice of database will influence the kind of analysis you're likely to find. Searching for "marijuana legalization" will get very different results if you use PubMed (medical studies) or PAIS (public policy issues).

What Date Range Does it Cover?

Most databases only cover materials published in the last few decades; there's usually a specific cutoff date. If you're looking for articles or research from before that date, you'll need to use a different database.

In a few databases, you also need to ask "How recent does it get?" Databases of historical materials usually don't go up to the present. And some databases simply exclude the most recent year or two of all journal articles.

What Types of Material Does It Cover?

Most databases index scholarly journal articles, but many cover other types of content, either in addition to or instead of. Some common material types include:

  • magazine or newspaper articles
  • books
  • book chapters
  • dissertations
  • conference papers
  • statistical data
  • images, audio, or video

Using Multidisciplinary Databases

It's easy to figure out that SocINDEX is a good database for your sociology paper, or that you might want to use BioOne for biology. But what about the "multidisciplinary" databases that cover all topics? Here's a quick run-down of the most commonly used titles.

Database

Contents

Pros

Cons

Academic OneFile
Academic OneFile
  • mix of academic, popular, and news articles
  • mix of full-text and citations
  • excellent breadth
  • detailed subject headings
  • good place to start when you're not sure what database to use
  • lack of depth
JSTOR
JSTOR
  • small selection of core academic journals
  • all full-text
  • all journals go back to volume 1
  • full-text searching available
  • lacks most recent 3-5 years of most journals
  • poor search interface for discovering articles by topic
  • irregular subject coverage: weak in some fields
LexisNexis Academic
LexisNexis Academic
  • news, both newspapers and broadcast transcripts
  • business, legal, and medical news and reference info
  • biographical info
  • all full-text
  • full-text searching available
  • newspaper coverage irregular, e.g. only last six months of LA Times
  • there's a lot of news, easy to get overwhelmed, lost
Project Muse
Project Muse
  • academic journal articles published by university presses
  • strong in the arts, humanities, and social sciences
  • weak in the sciences
Web of Science
Web of Science
  • covers all disciplines, in spite of the name
  • citation tracking (see who cited an article)
  • excellent source for tracking citations
  • poor search interface for discovering articles by topic

Content Databases versus Indexes

While some databases are actual collections of online content, most are simply indexes of articles or other materials. They contain citations to the material. Index/​citation databases help you discover and identify useful articles for your topic... but then you still have to actually find them. 

Knowing which type of database you're using tells you what to expect in terms of finding full text and also influences your search terms.

Common Full-Text Databases Common Citation-Only Databases
  • JSTOR
  • LexisNexis Academic
  • PsycINFO
  • Web of Science
  • PubMed

Important Tip

Do NOT limit yourself to full-text databases!

  1. The articles you discover in a citation-only database may actually be online. Just click on Find Full Text to find them.
  2. Some of the "offline" articles will be in the print journal volumes still in the Library.
  3. Even if duPont Library doesn't have an article online or in print, you can usually get a copy scanned and e-mailed to you in a few days via Interlibrary Loan.

What About EbscoHost and ProQuest?

EbscoHost and ProQuest aren't databases. They're companies that host databases. Lots of databases. Their logos appear prominently on the web pages, but knowing which vendor you used doesn't really help narrow the options if you're trying to retrace your search results.

The same situation applies to Thomson Reuters, Springer, Wiley, etc. Saying "I found this article in ProQuest" is like saying "I made this file with Microsoft"—it's true, but not a lot of help in finding the right program to open the file.

See Search Multiple Databases at the Same Time for info on simultaneous searching of databases from the same publisher.

Jessie Ball duPont Library, University of the South
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