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Illinois Tech Library Guides

Architectural Engineering

Search Tips and Tricks for Research Databases

While no two research databases work exactly the same, many of them have certain features in common. Most of these tips will work on most research databases.

Leverage the Controlled Vocabulary

The controlled vocabulary is the most powerful feature of research databases and nearly all of them expose their controlled vocabulary for you to use in their search results. In many cases this takes the form of a sidebar with options for refining or limiting your search. The brief video below shows how this works in EBSCO databases. The same techniques can be used in many other databases, although the location of the sidebar or of the items in the sidebar, as well as their names, may be different.

From the sidebar, most databases give you the option to limit your results by applying certain subject terms. Others also allow you to refine your results by excluding terms you're not interested in.

You can also usually access the controlled vocabulary from the full records of each individual article or paper. After clicking the title of the article in the results list to open the full record, look for a section called "subject terms" or "key words" or something similar. They are often hot-linked. Clicking on one of these or copying it into the search box will find everything in the database that matches that specific term.

Other Options to Refine Your Results

In addition to the controlled vocabulary, most research databases have a wealth of other tools to refine your results in the sidebar. This video shows some of the options available in ProQuest Databases; other databases will have similar options.

Use Search Fields / Advanced Search

Research databases always let you search specific "fields" or parts of the papers and their metadata. This is usually accomplished using a dropdown box after the search box. Sometimes you have to go to a special advanced search page to access this feature. This is not particularly useful if you're just doing a general topic search. However, if your search is more specific--for example, you are looking for papers by a specific author or you know the title of the paper and only need to find a copy--selecting the appropriate field will save a lot of time.

Create an Account to Access Advanced Features

Most research databases have certain advanced features that you can only access by creating a free personal log-in account. These features usually include:

  • Search History Searches can be saved to your account so you can run them again. This is especially useful if you need to go back and find a paper you saw earlier but can't remember what it was or how you found it. Some databases don't require logging in to access search history, but then your history only applies to the current session and is erased when you exit the database or close your browser.
  • Combining Searches Because searches are saved, you can also combine the results of entire searches using Boolean operators. This is much easier than constructing a Boolean expression from scratch.
  • Search Alerts Set up alerts to email you whenever a new paper is published that matches one of your saved searches. You can schedule the search to be run weekly, monthly, or at other intervals, and any new results will be emailed directly to you to keep you up to date on current research.
  • Bookshelf or Folder This goes by many different names depending on the database, but it allows you to save individual articles to your account to read later or save for another project.

HELP: The Most Important Button in any Database

Database providers understand that there's a steep learning curve to using their products and that every database looks and works different from every other. Because of this they take great care in developing their help screens. If a database isn't doing what you expect or if you're trying to figure out a better way of interacting with it, open the help screen!