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Focus on… Science databases


When you first come to use databases in your studies, you can find the sheer amount of available resources rather overwhelming. With dozens of different databases covering various subjects, journals and forms of information, it can be difficult to know where to start. Our quick guide will take you through the ins and outs of finding what you need…by Helen Ireland and Chris Vernon

We’ve mentioned in previous posts the value of searching databases for finding information rather than relying on Google, Google Scholar, or Library Search. However, you may still not feel confident about searching them, or may need further encouragement. It’s worth investing a bit of time early on to see what they can offer you. In later posts we’ll focus on specific databases and what they cover but for now we’ll point you towards the various types. You can find links to all of them through our lists of subject-specific databases, or our A-Z list of databases on the search page.

What will I find?

Full-text databases deliver exactly what they promise and are invaluable if you need to find some journal articles quickly, perhaps for an assignment or seminar tomorrow. Examples are Science Direct, which covers the sciences, engineering, medicine and social sciences, and IEEE Xplore, which contains millions of journal articles and conference papers on a wide range of science and engineering topics. However, the disadvantage of full text databases is that, even though they do contain a vast number of academic papers, they’re the product of only one publisher so don’t cover the whole range of papers available.

Other databases will normally give you a summary or abstract so you can decide if it’s worth reading the whole article. If you find a useful-looking article but don’t see a PDF or ‘full text’ link, click on the WebBridge button, which will check to see if we have access to the article through a different supplier. If the Library doesn’t have access then you can use Article Reach to try obtaining it from a different institution.

Three great reasons to use a database

  1. You can carry out very detailed and complex searches. Add multiple concepts and keywords and combine them with the words ‘or’ and ‘and’ to broaden or narrow the search.
  2. You can get the database to do some of the work for you. It’s worth registering with your favourite databases so that you can save searches and rerun them at regular intervals and set up an alerting system so that you can be emailed when a new article is published on your topic.
  3. It can help you keep track of the references you find (and the list can get out of hand very quickly!). Most databases will allow you to transfer references quickly and easily to Endnote Online or another referencing tool.

Each database has a useful Help feature to guide you through the various options and you can also contact your Academic Support Librarian for one-to-one help.

What are the best databases for my subject?

Two key general databases for the Sciences are Web of Science and Scopus. These provide details of a vast number articles but cover a wide range of subjects, so you could end up with a large number of search results and then find that not all of them will be relevant to your topic.

If this happens, you may have more success by searching some of our subject-specific databases. A good starting point for exploring them is to use a Database Gateway, which will allow you to search several databases simultaneously. We’d recommend EbscoHost and Proquest for this.

Each subject area also has at least one key database, which may not be searchable through a Gateway, so you’ll need to search it separately. Examples are Engineering Village for Engineering (but also relevant to Computer Science and Physics), MathSciNet for Maths and Statistics, Medline for Medicine, PsycInfo for Psychology and SciFinder Scholar for Chemistry. They all work in similar ways, although it’s worth looking at the Help section before starting a search.

As you get further into your course, explore some of the more specialised resources too. Depending on your focus we can help you to find patents and standards, codes of practice, and information on the construction and automotive industries.

Having so much information available can seem daunting but databases are there to help you to focus on the essentials and find reliable information, so start exploring!

Image: A Touch of Science / Mars PCC BY 2.0

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