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How to Choose and Use Databases

Search skills that help you find what you're looking for.

What Does the Database Search?

It's important that you understand exactly what the databases are searching. 

Most databases do not actually search and contain the full text of all of the articles. Instead they contain/search metadata. 

Metadata is data about the data.  It summarizes (and organizes) basic information about the data.  Doing this makes finding particular instances of data easier.

Common metadata organizational fields that are searched with a keyword search:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Source: the title of the journal or book in which the article was published
  • Abstract: usually a paragraph long, summarizes the contents of the article.
  • Subject Headings/terms: words used to describe what the article is about

Choosing the right search field can be crucial. You'll get very different results searching "shakespeare" as an author vs. searching it as a subject or within the  title field.

Pros and Cons of Searching Full Text

Searching purely full-text databases (that is, databases that do not have metadata) successfully can be challenging.  This is because you are searching the full-text of everything contained within the database.  Full-text searches retrieve huge numbers of results, many of them irrelevant. 

You can focus full-text searches by using a  "phrase search" (putting quotations marks around words that normally appear side by side) or by focusing your search within a particular field, i.e. title or abstract.


When to Use Full-Text Searching

  • Searching for obscure terms which may be mentioned in the text without appearing in the abstract or title.
  • Database content lacks abstracts or detailed subject headings.


When to Avoid Full-Text Searching

  • Searching for common words.
  • Searching for words or phrases that have different meaning depending on context.