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Database checklist: Key academic research resources — both free and restricted

Members of the media do “research” by performing all sorts of tasks — pulling financial records, tracking down contact information for sources, scraping data from government websites. But another key skill is the ability to locate and review academic studies to strengthen and deepen stories. The Journalist’s Resource studies database distills top research, but there’s a much bigger universe of research out there.

One common search strategy for finding academic research is trying a series of keywords in popular search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing. That general method may fail if you’re trying to find cutting-edge research findings on policy or news-related issues. A search engine’s algorithm may not immediately bring up new or seldom-searched studies, or the full, searchable text may remain locked away.

While no particular strategy is perfect, establishing a checklist of key databases is essential. Your selection of databases may ultimately need to be tailored and subject-specific, but it helps to have familiarity with a basic, multidisciplinary set of research tools — a “go-to” set of databases. Using your keywords systematically through a series of databases can diversify your search and allow you to locate most of the best available research.

Access issue

Of course, there is the problem of free versus paid access to research. In the academic world, this is called the “open access” debate. Through a university, you may have access to a wide range of tools online; it is worth noting that even universities with great financial resources do not have access to everything. You may be surprised, though, at the flood of free materials — including peer-reviewed research literature — now online (see the “open databases” section below.) If you are a freelancer or a reporter at a small outlet, you should also contact your local and regional library and ask them if they have comprehensive academic databases — ask about each of the restricted access databases listed below — available online for members. With a public library ID number, you may have online access to a surprising number of academic databases. (For an example, see the wide resources available in the Montgomery County Public Libraries, in Maryland.) Some databases, however, can only be accessed by physically going to a library itself.

News databases

As part of your search strategy, you may want to also “pull the clips” on a topic, to see what the media has reported and what prior research has been cited publicly. For that, use Lexis-Nexis, Factiva or ProQuest (which specializes in historical news.) They differ in the kinds of news articles and transcripts they can search, so try multiple databases. Note that a Google News search only yields recent articles; however, in the left-hand column there is an “Archive” link for older related content. If you can’t get Lexis, Factiva or ProQuest, call your local libraries and ask for access to similar news databases, such as those through NewsBank.

A core checklist

Below is a list of useful databases. Try putting your keywords — let’s say, “bicycling” and “safety” — into the whole series and reviewing the first two pages of search results. Your general operating procedure should be to review new pages of search results as long as you are still seeing relevant studies. When the trail runs dry, move on to the next database.

Keep in mind that academic research is often socially “networked” around questions: Once you find a good study, review the citations and the authors’ names and see what else they have written. Likewise, look at the work of co-authors. Researchers are often “in conversation” with one another about questions; and others may disagree with theories and findings and cite studies in order to criticize them. One good search strategy is always to investigate the trails of citations — both forward and backward in time.

(If you are looking for targeted baseline information and data in particular subject areas, also see our links to resources on government and politics; economics and business; health and medicine; education and schools; and environment and energy.)

Restricted-access databases

Open databases


With special thanks to Keely Wilczek and the Harvard Kennedy School Library.


Tags: training


By June 14, 2012