How to efficiently search online databases for academic research

How to search online databases

University libraries provide access to plenty of online academic databases that can yield good results when you use the right strategies. They are among the best sources to turn to when you need to find articles from scholarly journals, books, and other periodicals.

Searching an online research database is much like searching the internet, but the hits returned will be scholarly articles and other academic sources, depending on the subject. Academic databases are different from generic search engines though, and that's why we have compiled a series of tips to get you started on using databases for academic journals specifically.

1. Use the campus network to access research databases

Most academic databases cannot be accessed for free! As authoritative resources, these multi-disciplinary databases are comprehensive collections of the current literature on a broad range of topics. Because they have a huge range of publications, public access is sometimes restricted.

Your institution needs to pay for staff and students to access journals, books, papers, and more, and that's why you can only use them when you are on the on-campus network. Nonetheless, there are highly comprehensive tools like EZProxy that allow you to access your library's resources and online collections from your home network.

Check out our list of EZProxy connections to see if your institution provides such as service.

Tip: The best practice is to use the links provided on your library's website to access academic databases.

Around 2.5 million articles are published EACH year. As a result, it's important to search the right database for the reference you need. Comprehensive databases often contain subject-specific resources and filters and these will help you narrow down your search results. Otherwise, you will have to screen too many unrelated papers that won't give you the reference you want.

Ask a librarian or check your library's A-Z resource list to find out which databases you can access. If you do not know where to start, you can check out the three biggest academic database providers:

Or take a look at our compilation of research databases that have digital collections for computer science or healthcare. Remember: Searching the right databases is key to finding the right academic journals!

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

Start with one database. Narrow your search terms down to get the most pertinent information from the scholarly resources you are reviewing. 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 library resources for scientific journals. If your university library has a subject specialist in your field, you may want to contact them for guidance on keywords and other subject- and database-specific search strategies.

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 a librarian or do an internet search on how to best search your preferred database.

Check out Northeastern University Library's LibGuide on the top ten search strategies for academic databases.

5. Slowly expand your search to get additional results

A specific search might not return as many results. This can be good because these results will most likely be current and applicable. If you do not get enough results, however, slowly expand the date range, type of journal, or keywords.

From there, you'll be able to find a wide variety of related technical reports, books, academic journals, and other potential results that you can use for your research.

6. Use the pro features of the database

Academic search engines and 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 relevant articles
  • similar academic resources
  • list of "cited by" or "citations"
  • list of references

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

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

When you have thoroughly finished searching a comprehensive 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 an entire range of different journals or online resources.

You might prefer the search system of one database over another based on the results you get from keyword searches. One database might have more advanced search options than the other. You can also try 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 of scholarly content on your topic, people who get quoted or interviewed a lot and seem to be present almost everywhere. Pay attention to those names when searching a database and once you have found someone interesting, you can search for more from that person.

Also, take note of seminal articles, or those works that have been cited repeatedly within your field. Many major databases for academic journals have features that allow you to quickly determine which articles are cited most frequently.

Frequently Asked Questions about searching online databases

Where do I access academic databases?

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.

What type of database should I access?

Searching the right databases is key to finding the right articles. Ask a librarian or check your library's website to access details. 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.

How do I narrow down my online search?

Start with one database. Narrow your search to get the most pertinent information. Determine which options are available to do that, like narrowing the search by only including articles within a specific date range or unchecking 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.

What are the best tricks to an efficient online research?

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 search strategies for more information.

What if my online research has been unsuccessful?

Narrowing down a search might not return many results. If you do not get enough results, slowly expand the date range, type of journal, or keywords.