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Article and Database Searching

Defining a Topic

A database is a collection of records, one for each item (e.g. a journal article, book, DVD), that is indexed. A record consists of elements of information about the item, called “fields.”

Common fields include: title, author, subject, and source, that is, the magazine or journal in which the article was originally published. A keyword search searches all fields. You can obtain the record for an item by searching in one or more fields.

Most databases allow you to specify which field(s) you want to search by means of drop down menus. Here is an example from Academic Search Complete, one of the databases the library makes available. Although the interface of other databases may look different, most of them provide the same search functions.

The three boxes allow you to search for up to three different concepts, and you can add more if you wish. They are joined by the word “and”, for reasons explained in our tutorial on Boolean searching.

The menu on the right allows you to choose where in the record you want to search for your search terms. Early in the research process, you will probably want to leave this field blank in order to find your terms in any part of the record. As you search, however, you may discover that a word is a subject term, or that you are interested in a particular author, or that for some other reason you would like to restrict your search to just one field.

The database may also provide other options for limiting your search, such as the “Full Text” option above.

Here is an example of a record for a journal article and the fields by which it is indexed:

As you can see, the record is divided into several parts; these are the fields we have been discussing. It includes a list of subject terms such as “Binge drinking” and “College students.” These are terms that describe what the article is about and have been used consistently throughout the database.

You can use the subject terms to find more articles on the same topic, either by clicking on them or by adding them to your search and selecting “Subject” as a field. For more information on subject terms, please see our tutorial, Topic Search (Books).

When you are searching, consider where your terms might be found. For instance, if you wanted articles in which one of your terms was centrally important, you might limit your search to articles that include it in the title. If you find a useful subject heading, you will want to search for it only as a subject heading and not as a keyword.

You can also search by date in order to limit your results to those soon after a particular event, or to eliminate articles that are too old.

Please note that you may need to search more than once to find as many relevant articles as you want. Experiment with your search terms and limiters until you find what you need. Realize that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to search. Understand that you may have to expand or narrow your topic.