The Secret Weapon To Great Research Papers: Databases
We all know Google; we use it every day. But have you heard of Academic Search Premier, WorldCat, Gale Academic OneFile, Reference USA or NoveList? All these and more can be found through the ‘Research’ tab on your public and school library websites.
They can help you do everything from finding your next book to fixing your car to starting a business, and, most important for those returning to school, writing research papers. Yet, they remain an underused resource, a situation likely to continue as students have limited access to librarians who can aid them in learning to use them. However, with a bit of explanation, this resource can be mastered, and the research skills carried forward to college and beyond.
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Why not just use Google?
Good question. You should. It’s free, easy to use, and for most of the common things you look up, more than adequate. A research paper, we can agree, is not a common task. Because of that, it requires a different approach and different tools.
What is a database anyway?
Dictionary.com defines a database as the following: a comprehensive collection of related data organized for convenient access, generally in a computer.
Databases, like Academic Search Premiere, and a search engine, like Google, use the same underlying principle in that they collect information and store it in a way to make it searchable. Meaning that, based on the definition above, both are a database. The difference comes from how they collect the information. Google and other search engines use a digital force they call spiders to go out, find new content, and place it in their database based on the keywords the creator assigned to it. A database takes the same approach, but uses humans to find good, unbiased, age-appropriate materials on a specific topic and puts them together for the user. Think of Google as an endless supply of file cabinets containing a file on every single item on the internet. Then picture a smaller, focused set of file cabinets dedicated to history, like History Reference Center, or newspapers, like Newspaper Source, or business, like AtoZDatabase or USA Business Database. Everything inside relates to that topic and has verified factual information found and organized by human hands. That’s a database.
Different rules for different systems
One of Google’s coolest features is its ability to ‘guess’ what you’re thinking. You start typing and it presents you a dropdown list of possible queries, based on the most popular searches with those words at that time. This guesswork feature requires a lot of work to create, and so most of the people who work there are focused on improving this feature. You can put in a full phrase, like ‘what was the first battle of the civil war?’ and Google, based on your geographic location figures you mean the US civil war and knows how to use grammar rules to create an answer. Databases, on the other hand, put the bulk of their resources towards the people and materials needed to create it and less into their search feature, so you will need a different approach to get the best results. Google can understand a whole phrase, break down the subject and a verb. Put a whole phrase into a database and it assumes you want an article that includes each and every word in that phrase. You will need to peel away the proper English and focus in on the major ideas your searching for, in this case ‘civil war’ and ‘first battle’ and only put them into the search box.
When you start typing in ‘civil war,’ despite what I told you, a drop-down list appears. As I just explained that databases lacked this ability, what is happening? The answer lies in the fact that the human who is collating the information needs a way to organize the information. The most common way is by subject heading. Again, think again of the file cabinet and subject heading is an individual file inside that cabinet that contains all the articles the humans who reviewed the documents decided belonged there. That list does not represent a guess, but a match to a word on that list.
How Does This Actually Work?
Say you want to research an article on spying. How would you do it differently when using a database? Rather than start typing, like you can with Google, taking 10 minutes to figure out a plan of attack can lead you to quality articles faster and get you on to the next stage of your research paper.
1. Look at the question, and really consider what it’s asking you. My example, writing a paper on spying, I made vague on purpose to show you how to narrow down a research topic from a large idea. Sometimes you will need to do this. Sometimes not, but it always pays to start by making sure you understand what the teacher wants. Never be afraid to ask them to clarify if you do not understand.
2. Start with what you already know: Think of other words that mean spy, like espionage. I know that spies used codes, so that’s a possible topic I can use. And, since I like spy stories, I know some of the lingo that I can also use to narrow down a topic. Start making a list of what could be possible subject headings.
3. Open your thesaurus and look for synonyms that you have not considered. When I typed in spying, the words bugging and wiretapping came up, ideas that I knew would connect, but had not initially thought of. I also decided to try the word spy and up came mole, informer, operative and secret agent come up, other possible subject headings that you might find articles under.
4. Once you have a list of possible subject headings, look at the database descriptions and decide which most accurately covers your topic and start putting in the words on your list and see what pops up. Starting here, with a bit of trial and error, you can zero in on the best subject headings and gather the materials needed to form the backbone of your project.
Schools across the country are determined to continue to educate our kids, including having them write research papers, a difficult task lacking access to a librarian. However, with a bit of practice, students of all ages can successfully use the databases provided by your school and local library and gain a skill that will carry them in good stead for life.