By A. Marissa Smith, MLIS
Senior Online Librarian at American Public University
Chances are that if you’re taking a college course, you’ll need to make a choice about which scholarly database to use for a course assignment. Making a good choice will help you find quality sources and save you time.
Scholarly Databases are Different
Scholarly databases, those used to locate academic and professional publications, can vary widely on several key points:
- Scope – The scope of a scholarly database can be narrow, indexing one topic thoroughly, or expansive, indexing many topics and disciplines. Some databases index content from only one publisher or institutional source.
- Content – The content available in a scholarly database might be minimal, providing citation and abstract information only, or comprehensive, including full text and times cited information. The content indexed could include journal articles only, or other publication types including books, conference proceedings, and white papers.
- Search Interface – How a scholarly database is searched, the form used to search it, and how the results are displayed and manipulated, can vary substantially.
- Availability – Some scholarly databases are available on the open web, but many more are licensed and made available through academic and public libraries. When you go to search a licensed database from beyond the physical walls of the sponsoring library, expect to encounter an authentication process. It might be as simple as entering your student ID and campus password, or library ID card. Some open access databases can be configured to link to your academic library’s full text journal content.
Choosing a Scholarly Database
Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed, when choosing a scholarly database to use for an assignment. Simply keep yourself focused on the task at hand:
First, identify which databases are available to you through your library. Academic libraries typically license key databases that support the fields of study offered at your school, and a full-text multidisciplinary database. Your library will likely also list useful open access databases. At APUS our popular multidisciplinary databases include Academic Search Premier and Research Library. Education Research Complete, ABI/INFORM and Praeger Security International are a few of our popular discipline specific databases.
Next, think about the purpose of the assignment. If you are writing an essay for an English class, where the focus of the assignment is learning how to write, try a multidisciplinary database from your library. These databases tend to be easy to use, and have a good breadth of information. If you are writing a research paper for a core class in your major, use the key scholarly databases that support your discipline. Depending on your field of study, the databases might be open access or licensed access only.
You’ll also want to consider how much time you have before the assignment is due. If the assignment is due soon, you may need to limit yourself to databases that contain full text. Databases with full-text save time because the text of articles you need might be included in the database. On the other hand, when you need to be comprehensive, remember to plan ahead. This allows you to use the most appropriate databases regardless of full-text availability, and gives you enough time to locate the sources.
Where to Look for Pointers
Academic libraries work to connect students to the databases most appropriate for their needs. Here’s how to take advantage of how this is often done:
- Use the library’s discovery database Many academic libraries offer a discovery database that lets you search the content of most of the library’s databases from one search point. Libraries have different names for this type of database, but it’s often the largest database search box on a library’s website. When you need to be comprehensive in your search, it would be wise to also search the key scholarly databases for the related discipline.
- Check your library’s subject guides Librarians at academic libraries often create subject specific guides that help students identify the key resources in a field of study. The guide would likely have a list key references books and databases.
- Find your library’s database list This list is often called an A to Z list, and is usually made available from a prominent link on your library’s website. The list will order the library’s licensed databases alphabetically, giving a brief description and an access link. Many A to Z lists can be sorted by subject, and include relevant open access databases.
- Ask a librarian Even before you start searching a scholarly database, there is value in asking a librarian which database would be most helpful to you. Academic librarians know which databases are available at their libraries and have a good knowledge of know which databases available on the open web.
Want to Learn More?
Check your library’s book catalog (look for a link to the catalog on the library’s website) to see if the books below are available. If not, ask about getting a copy on loan from another library using Interlibrary Loan. All three are available as ebooks to APUS students through the APUS Library.
Booth, Wayne C., Colomb, Gregory G., and Williams, Joseph M. Chapter 5: From problems to sources. In Craft of research. (pp.68-83) Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Creme, P., & Lea, M. R. (2008). Chapter 4: Beginning with the title. In Writing at university : A guide for students. (pp.40-50) Buckingham, GBR: McGraw-Hill Education.
Ellison, C. (2010). Chapter 2: Doing your research. In McGraw-Hill’s concise guide to writing research papers. (pp.19-69) New York: McGraw-Hill.
The more you use scholarly databases, the easier choosing one will be. Along the way, be sure to reach out to the academic librarians at your school. They are there to help, from providing direction on which database to use, to in-depth research consultations. Check your library’s website for contact information.
About the Author
Marissa Smith received her MLIS degree from San Jose State University. She has been an academic librarian, at brick and mortar and virtual institutions for over 15 years. She’s shared her searching expertise through train-the-trainer programs, embedded course instruction, and student consultations.