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Research Skills Tutorial

This is a self-paced, non-credit course that covers research skills, critical thinking, media and internet literacy, and understanding the complexities of the modern information environment (including libraries.)

Library Databases vs. the Web

The Web

The Web has its place in scholarly research. Searching Google or Wikipedia can be useful to begin getting background information on your topic. Government agencies, colleges and universities, and nonprofit organizations all make information freely available on the Web.

Searching the Web may feel easier because you can use natural language to do so, such as, "What is ISIL's mission?" or "Is global warming causing more hurricanes and tornadoes?"

Unfortunately, there are many downsides to using the Web for research. Much of what appears on the Web, is not only unreliable, it often includes deliberate misinformation.

Searches can yield millions of duplicate or irrelevant results.

Also, most publishers of scholarly work only make their content available via their own websites, for a fee, or via library subscriptions to databases, so you will usually not find the kind of results that are best for academic research on the Web, unless you are searching open access repositories.

Library Databases

Most library databases contain a mixture of scholarly and non-scholarly content, though some contain only scholarly content, making these the best choice for academic research.

Database searches are very precise, meaning that your search results are likely to be very relevant to the search terms you use, and, assuming that your topic is narrow enough, there is likely to be a much more manageable number of results.

Databases also have a number of advanced features, usually referred to as limiters because they limit the number of search results to exactly what you request. For example, you can limit a search by publication date, language, document type (e.g., case study, film review, literary criticism), whether the results come from peer-reviewed journals to name just a few.

One challenge to using databases is that they do not understand natural language. In order to yield the precise results they do, they require a precise search free of extraneous language. So, instead of entering "Is global warming causing more hurricanes and tornadoes?" in the search field, you might instead enter something like:

"global warming" AND (tornadoes OR hurricanes OR "tropical storms")

In the example search phrase above, everything serves a purpose. The quotation marks around global warming tell the database you only want results that include that exact phrase, as opposed to results that might include global economies and warming huts. The AND tells the database that you only want results that mention both global warming and the violent weather events named. The OR connecting terms inside parentheses tells the database that you are willing to accept either tornadoes or hurricanes or tropical storms in your search results and that those results need not include mentions of all three weather events in any one article, though they may.

These connectors are known as Boolean operators. There are more of them, and they will be discussed in greater detail, later on.

The video below offers some further discussion on the difference between searching the Web and using library databases.

Accessibility Note

Please note: If you need to request accommodations with content linked to on this guide, on the basis of a disability, please contact Disability Services by emailing them at  Requests for accommodations should be submitted as early as possible to allow for sufficient planning. If you have questions, please visit the disability services website