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How to do a Literature Search: Choosing a database

Library databases

The Library subscribes to hundreds of databases which index many different journals and sometimes other types of literature such as books, conference papers and patents.  When you search a library database you are not normally searching the full text of a publication.  They mostly contain publication titles, authors, reference information and an abstract summary.  Most of this content is peer-reviewed, in other words checked by another expert in that subject area, so the information you find should be of high quality. 

There is a complete list of Library databases, which you can filter by subject:

Choosing a database

The best database to search depends on the question you are asking.  There are three things to consider:

1.  Does the database cover my topic?

Some databases index the literature from all subject areas, others specialise in one particular subject area.  You will normally choose a database from your own subject area but this depends on what you are working on.  For example, a chemist may want to use an education database or an education student may want to use a chemistry database if they are working on a chemistry education topic.  If you are working in a multidisciplinary area such as environmental science you may want to choose a database that covers all subjects, such as Web of Science or Scopus.

2.  What type of literature do I need to find?

  • Books are most useful for definitions and background information.
  • Journal articles and conference papers are most useful for up to date, in depth research.
  • Statistics may be needed.
  • Depending on your topic, you could also consider searching for patents, standards, reports, theses.

Different databases cover different types of literature.

3. Which journals are covered by the database?

Some databases provide a list of the journal titles that they index.  Most databases allow you to do a search by journal name.  It might be worth checking that the database covers your favourite journal titles.  You should be able to find out how many journal titles the database indexes: the greater the number of titles, the less likely you are to miss something useful.

Finding journal articles

To find the most recent and in-depth answers to your research question you will probably want to look at journal articles: most of the library databases index journal articles. 

There are different types of journal articles.  Some articles contain original data from research projects: these are referred to as primary literature.  In a review, the author has selected the most important primary articles and given an overview of the key developments on a topic.  These are referred to as secondary literature. Review articles can be very useful when you are investigating a topic that is new to you. Most library databases allow you to filter for different types of journal article, including review articles.



Library databases vs Google Scholar

Google Scholar is a free index to journal articles from Google. 

When searching for a topic, Google Scholar results may appear to be more relevant than those from a library database.  This is because it ranks results using an algorithm which includes the frequency with which your keywords appear.  Library databases most often rank results in order of date, with the most recent first.

The problem with Google Scholar is that you don't know what it is indexing, so you don't know exactly what you are searching. With Library databases you can find out exactly which journals or other content they index. 

Google Scholar normally returns a large number of results and you cannot guarantee that the key papers will be at the top of the list.  Library databases give you much greater flexibility for searching within the results to identify key information.

Finding books

Although textbooks are unlikely to be of use for an in-depth research project, there are many 'research monographs' - more detailed books -  accessible in print and online through Library subscriptions.  They are an excellent source of information if you are getting started on a new project and need to find background information.  They can provide a useful overview of the research which has been carried out up until the time that the book was written.  Most Library databases do not index books, and even Google is not a very good source for this. Use the Library catalogue to search for books:

Finding statistics


 Although books and journal articles often contain statistics it is best to go directly to the source.  Who would have measured it?  Do you want UK, European or International statistics?  For UK statistics you might try the Office for National Statistics.  For International statistics you could try the OECD Library.  We have a web page listing sources of statistics:

Example Library databases for finding articles

ScopusACM Digital LibraryBusiness Source Complete

Web of ScienceSciFinderIEEE

EmbaseAPA PsycNet