Using Databases for College Research
Whether you’re writing a master’s thesis or a freshman-year composition, you’re sure to find useful information by searching databases. But what exactly is a database? Why are databases so helpful to college students? And how is searching a database different from searching the entire Internet using a search engine?
To define it in simple terms, a database is a collection of expert information on specific topics. Online databases allow people to survey a particular field, read expert opinions, peruse the formal research of others, and make informed comparisons and judgments. An example of such a database is JSTOR. JSTOR lets you perform advanced searches, and it retrieves only scholarly articles. Likewise, A-Z Journal Finder combs exclusively through scholarly journals. (However, to use A-Z Journal Finder, usually you must be able to supply the name of the specific journal you want to examine.) Understand that whatever database you use, it’s a good idea, the first few times you use it, to read the instructions which appear on its initial screens.
Other benefits of database searches include:
- They save time. (Consider the length of time it would take you to scour through physical books and magazines.)
- They’re free to use.
- They provide the entire text of articles, not just bits and pieces.
- They’re up-to-date, so you don’t have to worry about relying on information that’s been disproven in recent years.
The most compelling reason for college students to search databases, though, is that scholarly articles are the most helpful sources for research papers. Not only are they written by experts, they’re also peer-reviewed by experts. That is, a distinguished group of academics has scrutinized every sentence of that article to deem it acceptable for publication.
Scholarly articles become easy to recognize after a while. They list the (impressive) credentials of the author, credentials which normally include a PhD. They’re written in technical language, and they have plenty of documentation all the way through, including footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Also, they will most likely begin with an abstract and end with a formal conclusion.
In contrast, when you search the Internet as a whole, you enter a kind of Wild West of information. Sure, there’s plenty of valuable material that search engines can locate for you, but search engines also routinely turn up blog posts and articles from highly questionable sources. Moreover, spotting the difference between what’s valid and what’s not can sometimes pose a challenge.
That’s not to say you can’t find pieces on the Internet which will aid your research, especially when you depend on websites whose URL’s end with either ‘.gov’ (official government sites) or ‘.edu’ (academic sites). Still, you must be cautious with all material gleaned from general Internet searches. Avoid articles in which the author’s credentials are not listed, or worse, articles attributed to no one at all. Also stay away from pieces containing slang words, multiple errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation, rambling or too-brief articles devoid of a formal structure, and any written work blatantly advancing a particular political or cultural argument.
Whatever sources you use, whether or not they come from databases, you must attribute their authors properly and carefully. No matter where you go to school, there are strict policies against plagiarism: consequences could range from failing an assignment to failing a course to expulsion. Not only that, but plagiarism represents a moral failing, a form of stealing. People who make their living within the realm of ideas need to be able to claim ownership of their ideas. So cite as you write. That is, don’t assume you can simply write the text of your paper and then go back and plug in citations where they’re needed. If you try it that way, you’re bound to overlook a number of important citations, and you’ll run the risk of a plagiarism accusation.
If you’re unfamiliar with how to cite correctly, don’t be shy about asking your college librarian for assistance. Many college libraries have copies of various style guides on hand; these guides will clearly spell out how to cite a source, so you’ll be in the clear no matter which style your professor asks you to follow. Even more convenient, you might find a database, such as Academic Search Premier, which has a ‘Cite Button.’ When you click on this button, the database automatically creates citations for you in whichever style you choose. In addition, you’ll be able to find amazingly convenient plug-ins which will put your bibliography together for you, on the last page of the document you’re writing, as you go along making your citations.