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The Research Process: Database Tips


1. Keep your searches simple and precise

Distil your topic down and isolate significant terms. Databases are not like search engines: correct spelling is essential, omit articles (a, an, the), don't "ask" questions.

2.   Be wary of trying to cover every facet of your topic with one search.

Don't feel like you need to fill every search field with a keyword. The more terms you add the fewer results you will get, or none. Scholarly articles are specific in focus, as opposed to books which are more comprehensive and encyclopedia entries which are simplified for a general audience.

For example: Suppose you are researching the cultural, political, and economic climate of a country. Wikipedia might break an entry on a country down into sections for each of those categories, likewise a book may devote a chapter to each. Scholarly articles typically endeavor to examine a much more specialized subject area or focus. For example:

Culture broadly, but specifically one mode of cultural expression (e.g, moonshining as a process of power negotiation and identity formation)


Economics, but perhaps specifically how a lack of infrastructure affected industrial production during a post-war period in a particular region.

3. Pay attention to discipline specific jargon and database supplied subject terms.

Once you start browsing results in a database take note of the subjects listed under the article title or in the complete record. Subject headings are more precise than keywords, and are used by databases to classify material in a coherent manner. Hitting on the right subject terms will yield more relevant results than inexact keywords.

*There is an exception to this with some military specific concepts. For example, there is no subject heading in EBSCO databases for "foreign internal defense".

Likewise, heed the language used by experts and scholars, they tend to use discipline specific jargon which might vary from everyday terminology. A few examples of how terminology might differ include:

Keyword or phrase

Subject term

Drone strikes


use instead: Drone warfare


Psychological operations


use instead: Psychological warfare


Weapons of mass destruction prevention

use instead: Arms control



4. Original research involves gathering a variety of primary and secondary sources.

You can use the cited sources/references of books and articles to follow up on more sources which may be relevant to your own research. But, also (as much as possible) conduct your own independent analysis and evaluate original source materials on your own. How does your analysis square with that of other researchers?

5. Avoid the trap of satisficing

Satisfice is a portmanteau (2 words blended together) of satisfy and suffice coined by the social scientist Herbert Simon. Satisficing in information seeking results in being satisfied with a minimum which will suffice, not what will best meet the need. This might involve indiscriminately using the first 5-6 sources that turn up because that meets the assignment requirement.