Learning Objectives

By the end of Tutorial 4: Searching a Database, you should know how to:

  • Define the term research database.
  • Differentiate between a keyword search and a subject search.
  • Build a search using Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT).
  • Use several techniques for narrowing or broadening your search results. 

Estimated tutorial time: 35 minutes

What is a Research Database?

A database is a searchable collection of information. A research database is where you find journal, magazine, and newspaper articles. Each database contains thousands of articles published in many different journals, allowing you find relevant articles faster than you would by searching individual journals.

Some databases are full text, where they provide the complete text of works such as articles or books. Other databases will only provide abstracts, or summaries, of articles or books.

Searching a Library database is different from searching the Internet.

  Internet Database
Examples Google, Wikipedia Academic Search Premier, JSTOR, ScienceDirect
Authority/Credentials Anyone can publish and anyone does. Difficult to verify credentials. Results are not always scholarly. Authority/credentials are guaranteed. Most articles are scholarly and peer-reviewed.
Results Thousands. Duplicates are not filtered out. Many are not scholarly. Hundreds or fewer. Duplicates are filtered out. You can limit to full text.
Relevance Lots of “noise” because there are no subject headings assigned. Information can be biased, untrue, or irrelevant. Databases focus on specific subjects. Offer fewer but more relevant results. Results are from scholarly publishers and authors.
Limiters Can limit by document type (pdf, doc) and source (gov, org, com) Can limit by date, document type, language, format, peer reviewed status, full text availability, and more.
Stability of information Information from the Internet is unstable. It can disappear at any time. Researchers will often be asked to pay a fee to access journal articles. (Note: These articles are available to you via the Library as part of your tuition.) Databases are a collection of articles that have appeared in journals. This makes their status more stable than the Internet. The information is paid for by subscription to be offered as part of a student’s tuition.

Selecting a Database

Some of our library research databases are interdisciplinary and some are discipline-specific. Selecting the best research databases for your topic is an important step to take in your search strategy: this will save you time and help you find the most relevant and appropriate sources. You might also want to consider if the databases you're using cover your topic within the date range you need, and if you should search multiple databases to look at your topic from different disciplinary perspectives.

You can access all of our databases from the Databases A-Z page or find subject-specific lists of databases in our Research Guides. To find the most relevant databases for a specific topic, course, or discipline, you can: 

  1. Use our Research Guides
  2. Use the "Subjects" dropdown menu on the Databases A-Z page 
  3. Ask your instructor or librarian for database recommendations

Keyword Searching

Keywords are the important words, phrases, or concepts related to your research topic. You’ll need to identify your main concepts and search terms to find the most relevant sources in our library databases. 

Search engines like Google use a natural language algorithm. That means you can enter an entire question or even just talk to Google and get lots of results. If you search Google for "What is the effect of social media use on university students’ sleep?" you get millions of results.

But searching for an entire question in a database will not get you any results, or at least not many good ones. Library databases are more specific and will only give you exactly what you put in. Instead, enter just your keywords, often separated with one concept per search box: 

keywords in database search boxes example

A database’s keyword search looks for the words you’ve entered anywhere in an article’s record fields (such as the article Title and the article abstract), and sometimes in the article full text. In the example database article record below, you can see the keywords "sleep," "social media," and "university students" in bold wherever they appear.

Keyword highlights in the article title in the database's search results:

Keyword highlights in the article title

Keyword highlights in the article's full record and abstract:

Keyword highlights in the article's full record

Take some time to develop a list of keywords before starting your search. Remember that keywords should be the main subjects in your topic, and not connecting words such as "what," "effect," or "on." If you’re not sure which terms or combinations of terms might work best, talk to a librarian.

Subject Searching

Subject Terms

Unlike keyword searches, subject searches only return results that include your search term in the subject headings field.

Many databases use a controlled vocabulary, which is a list of standardized subject headings used to index content. You can usually find the database's controlled vocabulary in a section called subject terms on the article record page or in the database thesaurus. Most database article records will have subject terms assigned to them in their record.

In the Academic Search Premier database, subjects can be found below the article Title, Author, and Journal information fields on the search results list:

Subject terms highlighted in search results example

Subjects can also be found in the full article record. Clicking on a subject term in an article record will start a new search using that exact subject term instead of a keyword: 

Subject terms highlighted in article full record example

Using a Database Thesaurus

Use the database thesaurus to determine which word or phrase is the one used by the database for a specific concept. For example, since "university students" and "college students" mean roughly the same thing, a database may choose to index all articles on this topic under the psychology concept of "college students." That way, a subject search for "college students" will also return articles about "university students," along with other similar terms.


In the database Academic Search Premier, we clicked "Subject Terms" in the blue menu bar. We then browsed for the term "university students." The search revealed that the preferred term in this database is "COLLEGE students."
Database thesaurus search and results list

Subject Searching

Once you know the subject term, it can be used instead of a keyword in your search. In the example below, the keyword phrase "university students" is replaced with "COLLEGE students" and the "SU Subject Terms" field is selected from the menu next to the search box, which tells the database a preferred subject term is being used. 

subject term in database search box example

Searching with subject terms can make your results much more precise. It can also help you expand your list of effective search terms to use in other databases. 

Keyword vs. Subject Searching

Databases have different interfaces and use different subject terms, but most provide both keyword and subject searching. Let's take a closer look at the differences between these two search options.

  Keyword Subject
Language Natural language. A good way to start your search. Predefined controlled vocabulary usually found in the database's thesaurus.
Flexibility More flexible. You can combine terms in any number of ways. Less flexible. You must know the exact controlled vocabulary term or phrase.
Fields Searched Database looks for keywords anywhere in the record (title, author name, subject headings, etc.) Database looks for subjects only in the subject heading or descriptor field, where the most relevant words appear.
Relevancy Often yield many irrelevant results. Results are usually very relevant to the topic

Watch the video below to learn more about Keyword vs. Subject Searching:

Source: Wayne State University Libraries Instruction. “Keyword vs. Subject Searching.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 9 January 2014. Web. 12 May 2017.

Boolean Operators

When you want to combine search terms, you will need to use the Boolean operators, or connectors. This is best done using the advanced search mode. There are three main Boolean operators: AND, OR, and NOT.


Use AND to retrieve articles that mention both terms somewhere in the article. The use of AND generally will retrieve fewer but more focused results.

Example: Childhood obesity AND exercise

boolean example for AND


Use OR between two terms to retrieve articles that mention either term. The use of OR generally will retrieve a larger set of results. The OR operator is useful when searching with terms that are synonyms or convey the same concept.

Example: Cloning OR genetics OR reproduction

boolean example for OR


Use NOT to exclude terms. The use of NOT allows you to remove search results containing a specific term. The use of NOT generally will retrieve fewer but more relevant results.

Example: Eating disorders NOT anorexia

boolean example for NOT

Effective use of Boolean operators is essential to sophisticated research. Watch the video below to learn more about Boolean searching.

Source: McMaster Libraries. "How Library Stuff Works: Boolean Operators (AND OR NOT)" Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 28 November 2016. 1 August 2020.

Phrase Searching

Place quotation marks around a phrase to search for that exact phrase. Most databases support phrase searching.

Example: A search for "United Nations" (with the quotation marks) will return only results where the two words appear together as a phrase.

For a quick demo, watch the video below.

Source: "Tips and Tricks: Phrase Searching" by North Carolina State University Libraries, licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US License.


Truncation is a search technique that uses a word stem (or root word) to broaden your search to include various word endings and spellings. A word stem is either a word or just the beginning part of a word that can have multiple endings. For example, the word stem journal* could have multiple endings like journals, journalist, or journalism, while nurs* would include nurse, nurses, and nursing. 

To search using truncation, just enter the word stem followed by the truncation symbol; most databases use an asterisk (*). You can check a database's Help page to see if there's a different symbol you should use; some databases, for example, use a question mark (?) instead.


Searches using the word stem educ* will return results with any terms like educate, educated, educator, education, or educational.
Searches using the word stem analy* will return results with any terms like analyze, analyse (British English spelling), analyst, or analysis

Watch the following video to review how truncation searching works:

Source: KU Libraries. "Search by Truncation." Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 15 April 2015. 5 August 2020. 

Broadening Your Search

Keep in mind that if you're looking for an all-in-one source that addresses your topic perfectly, you might need to change your approach. Watch this short video to learn what to do when you can't find enough resources on your topic.

Source: “One Perfect Source?” by North Carolina State University Libraries, licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US License.

If you aren’t finding many sources when doing a database search, remember these techniques that can help to broaden your search.

  • Make sure you are separating your search terms into keywords and putting one concept in each search box 
  • Remove a keyword from your search
  •  Use a broader term as the keyword for your topic or concept
  • Add in different synonyms for your keywords using the Boolean operator "OR"
  • Use a truncation symbol to search for various endings of a word

truncation example in database search box

Narrowing Your Search

If you are getting thousands or millions of search results, you will want to narrow your search. There are several techniques you can use, some of which have already been covered in this module.

  • Add another concept to your search using the Boolean operator "AND" to focus your results
  • Use “quotation marks” to search for multiple words as an exact phrase 

exact phrase searching in database search box example

  • Remove unrelated records by using the Boolean operator "NOT"
  • Use search limiters provided in the database


Limiters are tools that help you narrow the focus of your search so that the information retrieved from the database is limited according to the values you select. You can apply more than one limiter at a time. In an EBSCO database like Academic Search Premier, the limiters are usually found on a menu to the left of your search results. The types of limiters available will vary by database, but the most common ones are listed below.

  • Full Text – Click to limit results to articles with full text available in the database. Use this option with caution as the full text of an article may be in a different database we have access to, which you can find using the Find It button. You can also get access to full text articles by using Interlibrary Loan.
  • Scholarly / Peer Reviewed – Limits search results to just articles from scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. Note that not all articles in scholarly journals are peer reviewed, such as letters to the editor and book reviews.
  • Publication Date – Use this option to search for articles before or after a specific date, or within a specified date range.
  • Source Type – Select from the types of sources available in the database, such as journal articles, magazines, newspapers, etc. The type of source you will want depends on your information needs.
  • Subject: Thesaurus Term – Use the subject terms related to your search results to help narrow and focus your results on a particular topic.
  • Language – Some databases include many materials that have been published in different languages. Use this option to limit your search results to a language you feel comfortable reading.

Refine results menu in a database

Getting Full Text

Not all research databases are full text, where they provide the complete text of every article they have. Some databases only provide abstracts, or summaries, of their articles. When viewing an article record in a database, look for a link or button for the PDF or HTML Full Text.

HTML and PDF full text buttons

Find It

If you don’t see a full-text option for an article you need, look for a Find It button.

Find It Button.jpg

Clicking on Find It will show you if the full text of an article is available in one of our other databases (either through the Find It page or through LibKey) or if you’ll need to request a copy through Interlibrary Loan.

LibKey for Full Text

In the example below, clicking on Find It takes you to a LibKey page that provides the full text PDF of the article for download and a link to the article's location in a different database. 

LibKey window example

Link to View Full Text

In the example below, clicking on Find It take you to a page showing the details of the article and which database it is located in (ProQuest Nursing & Allied Health Database). Click the View Full Text link to go to the page where the full text can be accessed in ProQuest.

example of full text available and linked to database

Request Full Text Through Interlibrary Loan 

If there is no full text available in any of the library's databases, as shown in the next example below, click the Request Item through Interlibrary Loan button further down on the Find It page. Once you have requested an article through Interlibrary Loan, a copy will be emailed to you within a few days. 

no full text available window example

Caution: Paywalls

Beware! When searching for articles, especially when using an open-web search engine such as Google, you can run into paywalls where the database or website where the article is located asks you to pay money to get access to the full text. As a CSB and SJU student you should not pay for individual articles. Instead, request a free copy of the article using Interlibrary Loan or talk to a librarian for help getting access.

Quiz 4: Searching a Database