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Information Literacy Course International Relations: Introduction databases


In the second part of the information literacy course we will introduce databases. We will explain which types of databases are available at the University of Groningen Library and how you can use them to find scholarly literature. We will also explain Google Scholar.

We will show two types of databases:

  • bibliographic databases; i.e. databases with references to publications
  • databases with the full text of publications

Further on you will find examples of the different types of databases and about the way to use them.

Learning outcomes

After studying this chapter you will understand about the different search systems that are available in the University of Groningen Library. You will also be able to select the relevant search systems for your specific research question.

Databases, records and fields

Library databases contain information about publications, and sometimes also the full-text of publications. For every publication the database has a record. The record has separate fields for each element of the description. Common fields are:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Year of publication
  • Place of publication
  • Publisher
  • In case of a journal article: the title of the journal in which it is published
  • In case of an article in an edited volume, the the title of the volume
  • Pagination

All the elements above are used for the identification of the publication.

Especially bibliographic databases have added elements which describe the subject of the publication.

  • Abstract
  • Subject terms (subject terms sometimes are divided into categories: in terms for topics, for place, for people, for time)

Many databases contain information about other characteristics of their content:

  • Publication type (journal article, book, chapter of a book, book review, etc.)
  • Peer reviewed (yes or no)
  • Language of the publicaton

Advanced searching

When you do a basic search the database searches the complete records. In the ADVANCED search you can limit your search to specific fields. Limiting your search to a specific field gives more precise results.

When you want to find publications written by Kenneth Waltz you can limit your search to the author field. When you want to find publications about Kenneth Waltz you need a search where you can limit your search to the subject Kenneth Waltz.

In the next chapter you will be introduced to the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences which has a subject term Waltz, Kenneth N. and when you limit your search to the subject field and use this term you will find the publications about Waltz.

You can find the searchable fields in the drop down boxes and the limiters on the advanced search screen.

Bibliographic databases

A bibliographic database is a database with references to literature. Just as library catalogues they contain descriptions of publications. Bibliographic databases are designed as a tool to find scholarly literature.

Their content is selected with this purpose in mind. Bibliographic databases are usually specialised in a specific field of study. They try to cover the most important journals in their fields. Bibliographic databases publish the lists of journals that are covered on their website. The public can see which scholarly journals are covered by a bibliographic database.

The Univerity of Groningen Library has a license on the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS) which is the most important bibliographic database for the field of International Relations. We will also introduce other bibliographic databases that can be very useful to students in International Relations.

Bibliographies have excellent search facilities and are the best tool to find publications about a subject with precision.

Controlled vocabulary and precision

What is 'precision' in literature research? When you search for publications about a topic and you find 10 results, and it turns out that all 10 publications are exactly about the topic you searched for, then you have a precision of 100%. That is extremely high and not realistic. Usually a considerable part of your results is not quite what you want. SmartCat for instance is not scoring high on precision. Bibliographic databases score better.

Bibliographies use controlled vocabulary. This means that they work with a fixed set of subject terms. When descriptions of publications are added to a bibliographic database an indexer (a person that is familiar with the field and with the terminology of the database) reads the publication and tags the description with useful subject terms. The indexer decides which subjects are important enough to be tagged. The indexer uses the standardized terminology (= controlled terminology) of the bibliography.

Controlled terminology has many advantages in searching. When you perform a search with an index term in the subject index you will only retrieve publications where the indexer decided that the subject was important in the publication. Controlled terminology reduces NOISE, it reduces the number of non-relevant hits.

Bibliographic databases use controlled terminology. Full-text journal databases and Google Scholar don't use controlled terminology. When you search them you are searching with keywords: natural language terms that you choose yourself.

Using controlled vocabulary in your search

If you want to use the controlled vocabulary of the database in your search, you first have to know it. The best way to discover the controlled terminology is:

  • Start with a keyword search, using words or phrases that describe your topic.
  • Browse the results and look closely at the records of some relevant results
  • Look at the Subject or Descriptor field and there you will see the controlled terminology

Most bibliographic databases have a list of the subject terms they use: a thesaurus. You can browse the thesaurus to find the subject terms.

Full-text databases

In the chapter about journal articles you learned that most scholarly journals are published in electronic form. In the chapter about books you learned that the library provides access to many e-books. The library holds licenses for many full-text electronic collections offered by academic publishers. Cambridge Core contains books and journals published by the Cambridge University Press, Oxford Handbooks Online, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford Scholarship Online and Axford Academic Journals offer books and journals published by Oxford University Press. Taylor & Francis eBooks and Taylor & Francis Online contains books and journals published by imprints of Taylor & Francis.

Sometimes other vendors publish or republish digitized content: a very large database with the full text of journals and books is offered by JSTOR. JSTOR started as a non profit organization that digitized older volumes of journals that were originally issued in print. Later JSTOR also offered access to current issues of scholarly journals and at this moment they also offer e-books.

Full-text journal and book databases have not the extensive search facilities of the bibliographic databases, but especially when they are very large they can be used as a resource for literature research. Full-text journal databases offer the option of searching in the full text of the articles. In most cases bibliographic databases do not contain full text and don't offer this facility.

Searching the full-text of articles or books is only useful when your search terms are not too common. You can search for names of people or for specific events. When you search for american foreign policy you will get far too many results.

Journal articles can be available via more than one full-text database. When you search for an article in SmartCat you will see which databases offer access to the full-text at the University of Groningen Library.

Google Scholar

In this chapter about databases as a resource to find publications we will also introduce Google Scholar. We explained before that 'standard' Google does not have access to the bulk of articles and books that are published in the academic world. This is the reason why you should not rely on 'standard' Google as a means to find literature.

Google Scholar is Google's answer to this problem. Google tries to persuade academic publishers to grant the company access to their publications to include them in their database. Google uses the full text only to match your search terms with the full text. When the full text is not freely available on the internet Google Scholar does not provide access for the public. You have to get access by the license of your library.

Google Scholar uses the reference lists that are included in the publications for citation counting. When you look up a publication in Google Scholar, you can see which other publications have cited it. This is citation searching. Citation searching gives information about the popularity of a publication, but is also a way to find recent publications about a topic.

Google scholar does not use controlled vocabulary. Google scholar does not have the advanced search facilities that bibliographic databases have. Searching in Google Scholar is not at all precise.

Why can't I just use Google?