Skip to Main Content
University Library DePaul Library

Database Searching Dos and Don'ts

Here are some ways to avoid common pitfalls and sources of confusion when using library databases: 

  • Do Ask A Librarian if you have any questions about choosing or searching databases.
  • DON'T check the box marked "Full Text" in the left pane of EBSCO databases such as Environment Complete, GreenFile, or Academic Search Complete. Doing so would prevent you from accessing full text articles available through those all-important "Find Full Text @ DePaul" links!
  • DO search in more than one database. For a more comprehensive trawl of available literature on your topic, you'll need to search several different databases (each database contains a different population of journals & other publications). This is especially important when exploring different aspects of a topic that is broad or multidisciplinary (e.g. aspects of analgesia concerned with biochemistry, physiology, psychology).
  • DON'T set search limits or filters without considering what they will exclude from your results. Consider to what extent the usefulness of your results will depend upon:
  • Publication Date: Is older literature likely to have something useful to say about your topic?  Conversely, has discussion of your research concept emerged or developed only recently?
  • Language: Does it make sense to exclude literature published in a non-English language--especially if those foreign language materials relate to the communities you're most interested in? Tip: Foreign language materials may contain references to additional sources of useful information on your topic.
  • Publication Type: Are non-scholarly/non-academic publications (e.g. 'trade' journals, professional association newsletters, technical reports) likely to have something useful and valid to say about your topic?
  • Geographical Terms: Limiting your searches to specific geographic entities (e.g. "United States" or "Chicago") tends to exclude many results you would have found to be useful. You can reduce this effect by including the names of individual U.S. states, cities, neighborhoods, or the names of specific organizations or institutions (if not sure, Ask A Librarian).
  • Don't use the "NOT" Boolean Operator--unless the term you wish to exclude from your search results is not associated with your research topic. For example, when researching the physiological impacts of type 2 diabetes, stating: NOT diabetes type 1 would exclude any diabetes studies investigating both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
  • Don't forget to seek clarification from your instructor when you need help understanding an assignment.
  • Don't forget to identify alternate words or phrases that authors and databases may use to express each of the main concepts in your research question (e.g. animal behavior OR ethology). 
  • Do experiment with the use of  " " quotes around phrases - quotation marks tell the database to look for that exact phrase, but it's often best to start without them, and then see what effect adding them has on your search results and the choice of materials to work with. 
  • Don't be too quick to judge the likely value of an article by its title.  Article titles might not include vocabulary you would readily associate with your topic. When in doubt, open up the full article record to evaluate its usefulness by examining the subject headings, abstract, and if necessary, the full text.
  • Don't begin your scholarly research project in Google. Instead, start by using the databases you an access through the library website--including A-Z Databases, and Research Guides such as this one. Unlike Google, library databases provide productive and efficient mechanisms for testing and modifying your search strategies, and facilitate sorting, filtering, evaluating, and managing your search results.
  • Do use Google Scholar if/when you...
    • already have a full or partial citation for an article and want to see if you can access the full text through DePaul (but make sure you've already set your Google Scholar Settings to "Find Full Text @ DePaul")
    • anticipate needing to submit an InterLibrary Loan article request, but first need to check if it might be freely-available online
    • want to identify "Cited by" articles (articles that cited the one you've been reading)

Which Databases & How Many?

Consider your research goals:

  • If you need just a small number of relevant articles (e.g. to support a discussion paper), you may find sufficient material using just one or two databases (e.g. "Web of Science" & "Environment Complete").
  • Alternatively, when conducting a more thorough review of the published literature, you will need to search additional databases in order to cover all the journals likely to provide information on your topic  (the most useful databases are linked from Research Guides like this one)