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Advanced Information Research Skills


Identifying and using subject specific databases is very effective for finding information on a topic. For comprehensive searching it is recommended to use more than one database to access a broader range of resources as a single database does not index all the literature on a specific topic.

A database is a regularly updated collection of online resources and may contain journal articles, ebooks, conference papers, maps, videos and other electronic resources. Databases can be related to specific subject areas or cross multiple subjects.

Most databases offer full-text access, but there are index and abstract databases which provide the bibliographic details and the abstract of the resources only. These consolidate a broad range of resources within a subject area and additional useful functionality specific to the field such as a thesaurus or subject headings. 

Understanding the structure of databases will help you get the most out of searching no matter what the tool. 

For the purpose of research, a database can be described as: 
•    a collection or repository of electronic sources 
•    a searching tool using records and indexes 
•    a publishing platform (e.g. EBSCOhost which has multiple collections by subject and/or format).

Databases at Notre Dame

As a student or staff member at Notre Dame, you can access all databases on campus and off campus by logging in through the library page. Subscription databases are listed under the Find > eResources A-Z link on the library home page.

Some databases do not provide full-text access to their resources (such as Scopus) but index millions of high-quality resources.  If you find useful resources in one of these databases but there is no full-text option available, check for the FiNDit icon   ,  try a search of Google Scholar, the lead author’s institutional repository, or use document delivery. 


Database section in Library Subject guides 

Library Subject guides provide an overview of resources for individual subject areas. They contain a section about databases with links to recommended special databases and instructions on how to use them. Look for the databases or journal articles tab in the guides. Links for subject areas are below: 

Common features of databases include: 

  • basic and advanced search screens 
  • searching by fields such as author, article title, abstract 
  • search syntax techniques such as Boolean, truncation, wildcard, proximity 
  • results screen with ability to sort and view in different ways 
  • limiters to refine results by subject, format, publication date, peer-reviewed, etc. 
  • the ability to email, print, download, export to reference management software 
  • the ability to create profiles, save searches and results 
  • email alerts for searches and Table of Contents 
  • a thesaurus of subject terms in use 
  • help functionality to show the search options.

Being aware of the strengths and limitations of a database will help to maximise their potential as well as decide when it is time to select or move to another. The guiding questions below will help you decide on the value of individual databases for your research. 

Criteria Questions to ask
  • Does the database offer reliable, comprehensive coverage of journal articles in the area of interest? Is it suitable for a comprehensive search of the literature or does it only cover a small percentage of the literature? 
  • Coverage – what years are covered? 
  • How up to date is the information and how often is the database updated? 
  • What types of publications/formats are included? 
  • Is peer reviewed academic information included?
Search interface
  • How do you work the search functionality options in the search screens and results screens?  
  • Does the database allow for citation searching? 
  • Is controlled vocabulary searching available? 
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of the interface screens? 

Search syntax or algorithm

  • Does the database have the desired search syntax?  
  • What do the results show about how the search works? 
Ease of use
  • Is the database easy to access and to use? 
  • Is it easy to save searches, create alerts, export results, and download PDF? 
  • Is it easy to refine your searches, e.g. to date, publication type, subject? 


Databases can be used for many different aspects of your research from fishing, developing your research proposal, writing your literature review, conducting research activities, writing up your results, and discussing the significance and impact of your research.
Searching databases at the start of your research journey can: 

  • inspire creative ideas
  • consolidate your understanding of your research area
  • help you write a good research question
  • accelerate the research proposal writing process
  • provide the framework of study for the duration of your degree.

Explore a few different databases to see what sorts of information they contain. Ask your supervisory team and your Research Services Librarian for guidance on what databases may be appropriate to answering your research question.

Activity – How to pick suitable databases for your research 

  1. Go to the Subject guides listing and choose a relevant guide. View the Databases tab on that guide and scan the list of suggested resources.  
  2. Read the synopses for databases that are likely to be relevant and select your three top databases. If you’d like further assistance with selection, contact your Liaison Librarian.
  3. Search within each of the three databases using terms and synonyms from your research question. Your search is likely to require modifying (broadening or narrowing) to retrieve highly relevant results. Use the help facility for each database to learn more about specific search operators and search functionality in use and amend your search as necessary. 
  4. Record your search history from each of the three databases. This could either be a screen capture showing the development of your search or the ‘search history’ (many databases provide this feature – check the help screen). The important thing is to show how you have adapted and modified your search within each tool to yield the most useful results. Note – there is no one correct search strategy.  
  5. Reflect on the main benefits and limitations of your three databases in relation to your research topic. This could include the scope of the database, search functionality or other specifics you have noticed in using the tools.