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How To Do Research: Navigating Databases

An introductory guide on the research process for graduate students.

Navigating Databases

A database is a collection of organized and stored information designed for search and retrieval. Databases come in various forms and can be used for different applications. 

Libraries typically subscribe to research databases. Research databases are electronic platforms that contain a collection of electronic information that is searchable and, in most cases, retrievable in full-text format. Specifically, they encompass articles from periodicals like academic journals, newspapers, magazines, and trade publications. You can find an alphabetical list of all of the library's databases and their descriptions on the A-Z Databases list.

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. See below for more information about database search techniques and tools.

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)

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

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:

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Research Appointments

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The CSU librarians can support you during the research process with personalized reference services. We are happy to help you with the following tasks:

  • Accessing and using the CSU Library databases in order to create a peer-reviewed literature review with library resources
  • Using free personalized database folders within multiple database platforms to organize your research
  • Brainstorming keywords and recommending search limiters to use
  • Locating the dissertations and theses that may support and inform your research process