Using bibliographic databases - Using technology to help you

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Using bibliographic databases
Using technology to help you

In Chapter 4, we considered how to find and evaluate source material, especially that gathered online. As you progress through your degree course you will increasingly use peer-reviewed literature as your sources, and especially articles from academic journals and conference proceedings. To search through these sources is an unreasonable task unless you have a powerful search facility to help you; this is where bibliographic databases come into their own. A bibliographic database holds digital bibliographic records (author, date, title and other information) for journal articles and other information sources, often with accompanying abstracts. A database contains thousands or millions of such records that are searchable using keywords. Increasingly, databases include some full-text documents or will provide links to providers of full-text documents.

The scope of a particular database varies, from specific to general. Web of Science and ScienceDirect, for example, are wide-ranging databases spanning science, technology and the social sciences. Engineering Village incorporates Compendex and other key engineering databases, whereas ProQuest databases cover a wide range of disciplines in arts, humanities and social sciences, while Business Source Premier focuses on business studies and economics. Each discipline has its own most relevant searchable databases. Library or resource centre staff are invaluable sources of guidance on the best databases to use for your particular needs; for example, if you are undertaking assignments that straddle the disciplines.

Potential limitations when using bibliographic databases

Some bibliographic databases are open-access while others are only available through an institution that has a subscription. Similarly, some academic journals are open-access but many are subscription­based. The degree of access you have to databases and journals will depend on your arrangements with your institution and your institution’s contractual arrangements with publishers. This could be a major limiting factor in your ability to access sources for your assignments - you may have to ’cut your cloth’ according to the sources to which you have ready access.

The benefits of using bibliographic databases

There are numerous benefits to using bibliographic databases, and employing them effectively is a key aspect of being a successful student:

✵Bibliographic databases are regularly updated, giving you access to recent research.

✵You can search rapidly across thousands of journals and other publications using keywords to target those documents in which you are most interested.

✵You can combine keywords in various ways, using operators such as AND, OR or NOT to precisely target relevant documents.

✵Publications listed in such databases have normally undergone a ’quality control’ peer-review process.

✵The bibliographic records provide information (keywords and abstracts) that can help you assess the likely relevance of a particular document, as well as referring you to ways of locating the document.

✵Some databases include the full text of selected documents.

✵If you are involved in a long-term project you can store your literature searches, allowing them to be repeated automatically so that you are informed of any new sources (search alerts).

✵You may be able to automate the tracking of citations so that you are contacted if new articles cite key papers in which you are interested (citation alerts).

A search strategy

Let us imagine you have been asked to write a 1,500-word essay on ’Discuss how arsenic contamination in groundwater arises. With particular reference to Bangladesh, consider how effective attempts have been to mitigate the effects of arsenic in drinking water.’ This essay is really in two parts. The first tests your knowledge and understanding of the geological, physical and chemical processes by which arsenic enters groundwater. The second considers the specific case of Bangladesh, and the attempts made to deal with possible contamination of drinking water. Some of the information for the first part of the essay is available in textbooks and obtainable in review articles searchable on the World Wide Web using, for example, Google Scholar. However, if you wanted to be sure that you’d obtained up-to-date information from the most reputable sources, you might search for review articles using a bibliographic database such as Web of Science.

The search terms for finding sources for the first part of the essay are straightforward: arsenic, contamination, groundwater. You want all three terms to be present, not just one or two, otherwise you are likely to be swamped with responses. So, within your chosen database you would search for ’arsenic AND contamination AND groundwater’. Even then, you are likely to be inundated with many hundreds of responses. How can you narrow the search?

Finding too many sources

Depending on the type of bibliographic database you are using, and what you are seeking to achieve, there are numerous ways to narrow your search. You can often specify the type of document you are searching for, such as review articles as opposed to research articles. You could ask for only the most recent sources (perhaps those published in the last five years). You could also narrow your search by geographic region. In this case, you might be particularly interested in articles that include or focus on Asian countries, so you might include ’asia*’ in your search string. Here, the * is a wildcard symbol (some databases use ? or # instead of *). The * allows various endings to the word, so your search will also capture ’Asian’, not just ’Asia’. You could use the NOT operator to exclude, for example, articles referring to the ’United States’, e.g. ’arsenic AND contamination AND groundwater AND Asia* NOT United States’. In this case, be aware that you might reject some useful sources that mention both Asia and the United States. Other ways of narrowing your choices are by selecting for certain journals or authors or, if you are using a wide-ranging database such as Web of Science, restricting your search to certain disciplines.

Finding too few sources

The second part of the essay question concerns mitigation of arsenic contamination, with particular reference to Bangladesh. Initial search terms are likely to be ’Bangladesh AND arsenic AND contamination AND ’drinking water’ AND mitigat*’ (the last term would pick up ’mitigating’, ’mitigate’ or ’mitigation’). If you found only a few sources you could look for ways of expanding the search. One way would be to find alternative words with meanings the same as or similar to the words you are already using: for example, ’treat’ or ’treatment’. This could be added to the search string, which would become ’Bangladesh AND arsenic AND contamination AND ’drinking water’ AND (mitigat* OR treat*)’. Some databases will search automatically for synonyms of a base word you have used; checking for mentions of ’better’ and ’desirable’, for example, when you have entered ’good’.

Another way to widen the search would be to use similar search terms but in a different database or in a search engine. For example, Google Scholar searches the World Wide Web and might capture sources that are not included in a bibliographic database. These might include published journal articles linked to scientists’ homepages or university course websites, or reports by intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Following the trail

Once you have found a journal article or other source that meets RABT requirements (relevant, authoritative, balanced and timely) it becomes a rich source of information that will lead you to other documents. Its reference list will cite earlier documents, while many bibliographic databases include a ’cited by’ option, which will allow you to find more recent articles that have cited the one you are viewing. You might also search for other publications by the same author(s) or research group.

All the above suggestions are tempered, of course, by the time you have available to carry out the search, how efficient you are at determining what is most useful for your task (Chapter 4) and how you extract and use information from your sources (Chapters 5 and 9). Once you become adept at using bibliographic databases, you begin to develop confidence that you are carrying out effective searches. This will stand you in good stead for any final-year projects and should you wish to continue in postgraduate study or employment within your discipline.