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Guide to Science Information Resources: What is an Index or Database?

Indexes & Databases Defined

Background.  Before science publications became more readily available online, researchers located articles through a printed index.  An index, within a library setting, is a list of articles or other publications within a discipline or topic.  It provides bibliographic information such as author(s), title, where it was published (see image, "Example of a Print Index"), and sometimes abstracts.  This information assisted a researcher with locating publications and deciding if they were relevant to his or her topic, but the index itself did not provide its full content (commonly known as full text).  Science Citation Index (SCI) and Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) were and continue to be frequently used indexes in the sciences.Example of a Print Index

Conversion from Print to Online.  Indexes, which were traditionally available in print formats, increasingly became available online.  They also began providing access to full articles and publications.  These became widely known as databases within the library field and are now used to find information such as articles, dissertations, and other sources distributed by scholarly and commercial publishers.

Using Indexes and Databases.  To effectively search for information, get familiar with the indexes and databases that focus on your subject area.  See the indexes and databases page to identify those available through the FAU Libraries (non-FAU affiliates should consult with their institutional or community library/ information centers to see what they offer).  Take note of an index and database's features such as its search interface, controlled vocabulary, and other extras.

Although indexes and databases can help a researcher identify what has been published in his or her discipline, access to full text may not be readily available.  Be familiar with your institution's document delivery or interlibrary loan service that may help with obtaining materials that are not immediately available.

What about Google?  Google, the popular internet search engine, is an index of web pages.  It is a finding tool for web pages and can help identify some sources of information;  Google itself is not a direct source of information like a book or journal article.  Its technology searches the content of web pages and some documents, and then provides links to them. 

Google Scholar is designed to search academic, research, and governmental web pages.  However, it has limited ability to search specialized sources such as databases.  Many databases and other information sources do not provide direct access through Google due to their licensing restrictions and business practices; while Google Scholar may provide scholarly articles in a list of results, the publishing companies who own the content require a purchase for it and often provide access through a paywall where readers may be asked to pay to see it. 

Google is the most commonly used resource for finding content on the web, but using only Google Scholar does not provide a complete or comprehensive search for information.  Instead, use it in combination with subject-specific databases when searching for information.

Indexes, Databases, and Online Resources: Subscription-Based and Not Free!

Restricted AccessWith the exception of open access publishers, commercial academic publishers such as Elsevier and vendors such as EBSCO and ProQuest sell access to their publications and articles.  Their publications or products are not free!  Their fees are used for publishing, promotion, and other related costs.  

As a result, journals or other publications distributed through scholarly publishers are typically available for purchase when they are located using a search engine (see this example from a 1994 JAMA article when trying to view the full article while off the FAU campus). To make access to this information available to campus, the FAU Libraries (as well as your local or institutional library) purchases access to online journals, eBooks, streaming video, and other materials. 

Conditions of access are generally defined by service contracts between libraries and these information companies.  Due to these contacts, access to these electronic resources is typically restricted to affiliates; for FAU, its current students, staff, and faculty are approved users.  To access these sources, users need to authenticate themselves; at FAU, its affiliates use Off Campus Connect/EZproxy.

To avoid paywalls or paying out of pocket for journal articles, FAU affiliates can use FAU Libraries' information sources (and authenticate yourself when off campus), or use InterLibrary Loan (ILL) to request materials to which the libraries do not have access.  Again, see your local or institutional library/ information center for comparable services.  

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The Benefits & Challenges of Using Databases

Although a database is an important tool for locating information, library patrons should be aware of the benefits and challenges involved with using one.

  Benefits Challenges

Coverage:

The scope of available information, which includes date range, topics covered, and sources of information.

 

 

Databases provide a broad scope of coverage and includes many types of publications.

 

 

Scope of coverage depends on a library or institution's subscription; their terms may not provide complete coverage or access to full text articles.

Availability:

The ability to have direct access to articles and information.

 

 

Many articles and documents are readily available through databases.

 

 

Database access usually requires a subscription or an affiliation to an institution; they are not free.

Searching & Access Points:

Ways to find information within a database; includes navigational features, controlled vocabulary and metadata within records.

 

 

Databases allow many access points, or ways to find articles, through the active links in a record, its controlled vocabulary and its other features.

 

 

A simple keyword search tends to yield too many results or items that may not be relevant to your topic.

Using Boolean Terms:

Using the words AND, OR, or NOT in a database search in order to combine (AND), limit (NOT), or broaden (OR) a search.

 

 

May create a more precise search and yield more relevant results.

 

 

Usually gives fewer results than a keyword search.

Truncation & Limiters:

Using certain symbols (* or ?, depending on the database) to search for various spellings of a keyword. 

Example:  behavi*r to find behavior or behaviour.

 

 

Using truncation or limiters are other ways to refine a search for information.

 

 

Sometimes using truncation or limiters can disable other search features, depending on the database.

Source:  Pritchard, E., & Scott, P. R. (1996).  Literature searching in science, technology and agriculture (Revised Edition).  Greenwood.