Databases and the Art of Search Engine-Fu

The beauty of being a graduate student is that you have access to high quality databases.  As a research junky, this gets me pretty excited.  If I can spend a day in the library trawling databases and digging through big ol’ books, it’s been a good day.  This is not something I would admit at a party, but I feel that most graduate students can probably relate.

As a journalist, I have spent a significant amount of time buried in databases, and while they are phenomenal resources, they can be frustrating to use.  You need to be familiar with how they are organized, and you need to hone your search engine-fu.  First, a breakdown of my top three favorite research databases.  Some tips for manipulating search engine queries follow.

1. EbscoHost

EbscoHost is by far the most comprehensive article database available.  This is both a strength and a weakness.  Since EbscoHost aggregates multiple databases, covering a wide variety of subjects and disciplines, a single search can yield thousands of results yet none that are relevant.  To prevent this from happening, don’t be lazy.  Use the database selector to narrow your search.  We’ve all been lazy and hit “Select All,” and it never works.  Don’t do that to yourself again.

2. LexisNexis

LexisNexis is more focused that EbscoHost.  It focuses on legal documents and public records information.  While this sounds like it may have limited relevance for most graduate students, the magnitude of raw data available through LexisNexis has a surprising amount of application.  It’s great for researching companies or demographics, giving you very clear, reliable concrete data.  Even if you don’t think LexisNexis will provide relevant information, give it a shot anyway.  It just might surprise you.

3. Google Scholar

Google Scholar is like EbscoHost in that it covers a broad spectrum of topics.  It’s Advanced Search options are slightly different from EbscoHost, so if you are having trouble finding something on EbscoHost, trying Google Scholar might produce useful sources (or vice versa).  Also, I have found that, in general, the Google Scholar search function is a bit better at producing useful sources than EbscoHost, but I will often switch back to EbscoHost once Google Scholar has given me a useful string or a useful journal to explore.

Search Engine-Fu

When I am starting research from scratch, my preferred plan of attack is to start at the macro level, searching broadly to get an idea for how the research is segmented and who the big names are.  Typically, I browse Wikipedia and conduct some general Google searches.  Wikipedia, while not a reliable source in its own right, often links to sources that are reliable and appropriate for academic research.  These articles will either be some of the more important sources in that particular field of study, or their bibliographies will contain those sources, do dig through the sources they cite.  Also, these preliminary macro searches will often clue you into the terminology that exists with a particular field.  Familiarizing yourself with the language that topic experts use will give you some words and phrases that you can use in future searches.  If you’re that kind of person, you can write these phrases down.

If my macro search produced some important names, I go to EbscoHost or Google Scholar to find articles by those people and by people citing those people.  If I do not have any names to search, I begin to use the words and phrases that I found in my macro search to hopefully dig up relevant sources, and then again, I pillage those reference lists for useful more useful search phrases (often hidden in the titles of articles) and for reliable experts in that field.  When I am doing this, as I mentioned before, I eliminate irrelevant databases to help narrow my search.

Once you find one relevant article, you should be able to dig at least four or five relevant sources out of that article’s reference list, and that’s really the big secret to search engine-fu: finding more relevant words and names that you can mix and match in your search queries.  If you get really stuck, you should find someone at your University and ask them where you should start (or ask a librarian).

For more on search engine-fu, check out Mashable’s article on Google Fu, which is the father of search engine-fu.

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One thought on “Databases and the Art of Search Engine-Fu

  1. thecoalfist says:

    Awesome tips, man. I personally cringe every time I have to use one of those databases, but maybe I need to re-dedicate myself to them huh?

    To suck my life away, or not to suck my life away…

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