Using academic databases

About academic databases 

Academic databases are tailored for scholarly research. They are online repositories of organised data, focused on high-quality academic materials. 

Enhance your research by using academic databases to find scholarly sources relevant to your topic. These specialised databases often provide powerful search tools, allowing you to refine your queries and discover precise and up-to-date information.

The resources you will find in these databases have usually undergone a process called “peer review”. That means experts in the field have carefully evaluated the content before publication, ensuring quality and credibility.

But even academic databases can make mistakes. Always critically evaluate the information you find, considering factors like: 

  • the author’s credentials
  • the publisher’s reputation 
  • publication date
  • target audience 
  • the research methods used. 

This way, you can ensure that you are using reliable and trustworthy materials for your research.

General vs discipline specific databases 

Databases can be multi-disciplinary, like Scopus, and discipline specific, like Medline, covering everything from science and technology to social sciences and humanities.

To find the most popular databases in your discipline, go to:

  1. Library homepage
  2. Browse
  3. Resources by subject
  4. Select your relevant faculty

To browse all databases, go to:

  1. Library homepage
  2. Browse
  3. Scroll down to “Databases”
  4. Click “See all databases”

Common interface features

Academic databases have a range of features to help with your research.

  • Search bar
  • Filters and advanced search options
  • Abstracts and summaries
  • Full-text access
  • Citation information
  • Save and export options
  • Related articles and recommendations

Interfaces can vary slightly, so explore each database’s specific features by clicking on “Help” or “About” link within the database.  

Keyword vs subject heading searching

Subject heading searching

Databases that use a thesaurus can be searched using subject headings. A thesaurus typically lists terms along with their related terms and groups them according to their semantic relationships, such as similarity or contrast in meaning. 

Most databases with a thesaurus are discipline specific, with the thesaurus organised around specific terminology or “subject headings”. Each article in the database is assigned one or several subject headings that reflect its content. 

Subject headings improve your search because they are standardised, which helps you find relevant results and connect related articles. 

Find subject headings by checking the database search page for terms such as: 

  • thesaurus
  • subject headings/terms 
  • index 
  • controlled vocabulary. 

In some databases you can tick boxes that connect your current search to a subject heading. Look out for options such as:

  • Map to Subject Heading
  • Suggest Subject terms.

Keyword searching

Not every database has a thesaurus, but every database has an option for keyword searching. 

In databases with a thesaurus, you can supplement your subject heading search with a keyword search for an optimal result. 

In databases without a thesaurus, you rely on keyword searching alone.

Keywords are built on our natural use of language, are not standardised, and can have multiple meanings. Using keywords alone may result in retrieving more results, but many of them might not be relevant.

To effectively search with keywords, you will need to identify synonyms to your main terms and include them in your search because different authors might be using different words to describe the same concept.