Expert Commentary

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

Article with links to key academic and research databases and a discussion of free/paid access issues.

online data resources (iStock)

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

  • Academic Search Premier: This EBSCO database provides access to the latest research published in thousands of scholarly journals. If you want the latest, best, most relevant research, you might: (1) click on the box for “Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals”; (2) make sure your keywords are located in the title or abstract — choose those fields; and (3) fill out the date fields to limit your search.
  • JSTOR: This non-profit database covers more than a thousand academic journals, and a university or library affiliation provides access to the full text of articles. It can be terrific for background research, but it does not provide access to the latest studies. By agreement, the database lags the academic publishing world by several years.
  • Academic OneFile: This database, often available through public libraries, has access to thousands of journals. Not all articles are available in full text, but you can limit your search to full text and peer-reviewed studies.

Open databases

  • Google Scholar: This database is free to anyone, but access to the studies listed in your search results may be restricted. If you can’t get a particular study itself through a university/library affiliation, be sure to click “All Versions” at the bottom of the search result. Many scholars now post on their websites early PDF versions of their studies, and many of these will be listed. Google Scholar is where you’ll also have a chance to see findings in some scholarly books.
  • Microsoft Academic Search: This evolving database has tools for seeing connections between researchers and their work. It provides a “profile” of many academics and charts how their findings have been cited.
  • Directory of Open Access Repositories (Open DOAR): This site, run by the University of Nottingham (U.K.), aggregates databases from around the world, locating open access research across disciplines.
  • PubMed Central: This database, from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, has more than 2 million open access, full-text studies that relate to public health and policy issues. The more general PubMed database contains more than 20 million articles, but some of them have restricted access. Both databases are worth searching.
  • National Bureau of Economic Research: A nonprofit research organization that publishes top scholarship in the economics discipline. Many important articles first appear in working paper form here, and much of the scholarship has a broad, public policy focus.
  • Social Science Research Network: This open-access database has hundreds of thousands of important, current papers, many of which are available for free download as PDFs. Many of the articles are “working papers,” meaning they are in process toward a final, published form.
  • Directory of Open Access Journals: A growing database that covers only journals that are free and open to the public. Already, it provides access to more than a thousand U.S. journals, and many international ones.
  • Mendeley: A database that crowd-sources selected studies from participating scholars around the world. You can join this project and curate your own selection of studies. Some studies are not open access, but the abstracts and titles are all there.
  • Public Library of Science (PLoS): The flagship journal of this open-access academic project, PLoS One, features original peer-reviewed research on science and medical topics; many studies have policy implications.
  • HighWire: A library and database project from Stanford University that provides full access to a huge collection of research. It is mostly science-related, but there is significant social science scholarship, as well.
  • Full Text Reports: A site that aggregates research-related studies and reports from across the universe of information. The materials are hand-picked.
  • Open CRS: The Congressional Research Service (CRS) operates as a quasi-think tank that provides reliable, unbiased background on policy issues. CRS does a good job of reviewing available research on issues. Open CRS aggregates these government reports as they come into the public domain.
  • RAND Corporation: Non-partisan think tank that produces a wealth of information on social science topics. Some of the studies are by leading scholars who partner with RAND.
  • Pew Research Center: Leading survey and research organization that not only does polling on salient issues in the news but provides deep, analytical reports around the issues.
  • Russell Sage Foundation: An organization that is tied into a large network of social science scholars across the United States. With a particular focus on issues of inequality, social mobility, race, class and related issues.
  • The Brookings Institution: A non-profit think tank, Brookings has a large network of scholars that produce reports and papers on a wide variety of important news topics.


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


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