Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

How To Do Research: Navigating Databases

A guide on how to conduct academic research.

Navigating Databases

Databases are designed to function differently from search engines like Google or Yahoo.  The key to navigating databases is to apply certain search techniques that work well with databases.

Keywords vs. Subject Terms

There are two main strategies for searching in library databases:  using either keywords or subject terms.

Keywords are general words or phrases used to describe a topic and originate from the user.

Subject terms, also known as subject headings, are specific words used by indexers and catalogers to describe content in databases.


Subject Terms

 Uncontrolled terminology and natural language,   permitting an open form of searching

 Controlled vocabulary originating from particular fields of study

 Search terms originate from the user

 Vocabulary is already assigned by an expert

 Unfamiliar with the technical terminology of a subject

 Knowledgeable in the terminology of a particular subject

 Broadens the search and set of results

 Narrows the search for a refined set of results

 Can appear in several areas of a source (e. g. document  title, publication titles, subject headings, abstract, summary, and full text)

Typically appear in the subject heading field on the article's record page


Searching by Subject Terms

Subject terms are formal and differ from database to database, so before searching by subject term, the correct term will need to be identified.  Generally, subject terms can be found on an article's record page, or there may be a link labeled "Thesaurus" or "Subject Terms" on the database's advanced search screen:

Once a subject term has been identified, it can be entered into the database's search box, and then the "Subject Terms" field from the drop-down menu to the right of the search box should be selected:

Boolean Operators

Boolean operators in databases are tools that allow researchers to connect keywords to refine, broaden, or narrow a search.  Boolean is an application of database logic, consisting of three operators: AND, OR, and NOT

  • AND - refines a search by looking for the occurrence of multiple search terms in a source
  • OR - expands a search by finding the occurrence of one search term or another
  • NOT -  limits a search by finding one search term while omitting another

Phrase Searching

Not all databases process search input the same way; however, a majority do incorporate a phrase searching function.  Phrase searching is another technique that can be used to narrow a search.

To initiate a phrase search, enclose a search term, phrase, or title in quotation marks or parentheses.

Example: "business management" or (business management)

Searchable Fields

Fields are elements of a source's record that can be searched in databases. These fields include, but are not limited to the following:

  • document title
  • publication title
  • publication year
  • author(s) name
  • subject heading
  • document text
  • abstract
  • publisher

A database's searchable fields can usually be found to the right of the keyword search boxes:

Screenshot from database with arrow pointing to search fields on right