How to use keyword search tools to find scholarly articles for your research paper

Google Digitization signs are all over libraries at The University of Michigan. (Credit: Andrew Turner)

Google Digitization signs are all over libraries at The University of Michigan. (Credit: Andrew Turner)

Even if you know what you want to write about in your next research paper, it can be a challenge to find the right scholarly articles. With a deadline looming, you need to have strategies to help you save time. Keyword search tools are going to be the best way to navigate through the many databases at your disposal. How do you get the most out of these information repositories? Let’s take a look at some best practices.

Research databases

Google is a great search engine for finding just about anything. But it isn’t always the best tool for doing your research papers. Check in with your school library and you’ll find that it has many research databases at your disposal. These databases are collections of journal, magazine and newspaper articles as well as books and reports. All have been digitized and catalogued for easy access.

Some of the databases that you are likely to find at your school library include:

  • EBSCO Academic Search Premiere: covers many subject areas
  • LexisNexis Academic Universe: covers many subject areas
  • PsycINFO: covers psychology
  • Sociological Abstracts: covers sociology
  • ERIC: covers education from preschool to higher education
  • Info Trac Student Edition: covers many subject areas

When you’re first starting your research you’ll find it most helpful to use a database that covers many subject areas and includes full-text articles. Later, you can move on to more specialized databases that cover your subject area in more detail.

If you need help, then ask the librarians. They will be glad to tutor you in using the databases. You can also find helpful tutorials on Questia.

Using keyword search tools

The best way to find what you need in the research databases is with a keyword search. You’ll want to start with key terms that are related to your topic. Be specific in choosing your keywords so that you get the sources that are related to your topic rather than those that are too general to be useful.

If you’re finding it hard to choose the right keywords, check out the tutorial from Walden University Library on Keyword Search Strategy. Their suggestion is to take words from your main research question as your keywords.

Advanced search strategies include using words such as “and,” “or” and “not” along with your keywords. Examples can be found at the George Mason University Libraries site on Combining Keywords.

“For instance, some databases, like Sociological Abstracts, may only present you with one search box. In this case, you must use proper search syntax. Surround synonyms with parentheses and separate with the AND operator. You may also need to surround exact phrases, like “college students,” with quotation marks,” they said.

Adding symbols with keywords

Symbols are also useful in helping you to find what you need. Examples include:

  • plus sign (+): add a plus sign to a keyword to search for plural and singular forms of the word.
  • star (*): known as truncation, the star symbol, or asterisk, added to the end of a keyword tells the database to search for all forms of that word. Example: bacteri* will return bacteria, bacterium and bacterial.
  • wildcard (could be a #,*, $, or ?): this symbol can be inserted anywhere in a keyword to take the place of one or more characters. It will help you search for any other spellings of a word. For example, behavio?r will tell the database to search for “behaviour” or “behavior” thus accommodating different spellings of the word.

Other tips for better searching were listed in the September 16, 2013, article for University of California, Berkeley Graduate Division titled, “Become a Power Researcher – Get the Most out of Searching Library Databases.”

Tips included:

  • searching in a specific field such as: author, title or journal title
  • limit your search by: full-text, only peer-reviewed articles, year published, specific language or type (books, articles, images)
  • create an alert to receive search results by email on a regular basis

Perhaps most important was the closing tip, which said, “Not every feature works in every database, and terminology that works in one database doesn’t work in others. Be creative, be flexible, and then ask a librarian for assistance!”

Using research databases requires different skills than those you’re used to using on Google. But with a little practice you’ll find that they are the best sources for your research papers.

Learn more about Using the Library to help you research and write your papers on Questia.

What’s your best tip on using research databases? Tell us in the comments below.

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