How to efficiently search online databases for academic research

Your institution's library provides access to plenty of online research databases. They are among the best sources to turn to when you need to find articles from scholarly journals and periodicals. Searching an online academic database is much like searching the internet, but the hits returned will be published scholarly articles. Academic databases are different from generic search engines though, and that's why we have compiled a series of tips to get you started.

1. Use the campus network to access research databases

Most of the academic databases cannot be accessed for free! Your institution needs to buy access for staff and students, and that's why you can only use them when you are on campus network. Nonetheless, there are services like EZProxy that allow you to also access your library's resources from your home network. Check out our list of EZProxy connections to see if your institution provides such as service.

It's 2.5 million articles that are published EACH year. Make sure to search the right database, which is pertaining specifically to your topic, otherwise you will have to screen too many unrelated papers. Ask a librarian or check your library's brief overview to which databases you have access to. If you do not know where to start, check out the three biggest academic database providers:

Or take a look at our compilation of research database for computer science or healthcare. Remember: Searching the right databases is key to finding the right articles!

3. Set up the search parameters within the database to be as narrow as possible

Start with one database. Narrow your search to get the most pertinent information. Determine which options are available to do that, for example narrowing the search by only including articles within a specific date range, or uncheck certain types of journals or magazines that are included in the database but have nothing to do with your topic. Make sure to also use very specific keywords when searching.

4. Find the tricks that help you get results

Unlike in a Google search, typing in full sentences will not bring you satisfactory results. There are different methods to search different databases. Ask your librarian or do an internet search on how to best search your particular database. Check out Northeastern's Libguide on this.

5. Slowly expand your search to get additional results

The specific search might not return many results. This can be good because these results will most likely be current and applicable. If you do not get enough results, slowly start expanding date range, type of journal or keywords to get more results.

6. Use the pro features of the database

Databases are getting smart! In the age of big data and text mining many databases crunch millions of scientific papers to extract connections between them. Watch out for things like:

  • related articles
  • similar articles
  • list of "cited by" or "citations"
  • list of references

They all will lead you to other highly relevant scholarly articles!

7. If needed, you can move to another or more general database

When you have thoroughly finished searching a database, you can move on to another to find more results. Some databases that cover the same topics might give you the same search results, but they might also cover different journals or you might prefer the search system of one database over the other. You can also move to a more general database like

8. Notice the big players in your field

There are experts in every field, people who have published a lot on your topic, people who get quoted or interviewed a lot, and seem to be present almost everywhere when researching your particular topic. Pay attention to those names when searching a database and once you found someone interesting, you can search for more from that person.