Using Databases: Periodical Indexes and Abstracts

Search magazine articles, research reports, journal articles, and abstracts published in magazines, newspapers, and scholarly journals.

Magazines, newspapers, and scholarly journals provide contemporary material that is often on very narrow topics. Magazines are written in a more popular style and aimed at a general audience. The term “journals” is used for scholarly research publications. Librarians use the term “periodicals” to include both magazines and journals. Often journals are peer-reviewed, which means that the articles are read by a number of scholars in the field before being approved for publication. There are thousands of journals, magazines, and newspapers published annually. You can consult online periodical databases to find out what articles have appeared on a given topic.

Before the Internet, printed indexes listed articles by subject headings. Entries included author, title of article, magazine or journal title, volume, issue, and page numbers. Produced by the same publishers who once provided print indexes, these online databases are proprietary and you will probably need to go through an authorization procedure in order to use them when you are off-campus. Check with your library to find out the procedures you need to follow.

Full Text Databases

Not every article ever published is available with full text online. Some databases provide indexing only. However, even those services can be useful. If you have enough time, you can look first in your own library to see if the articles are available and then ask about the possibility of using interlibrary loan services to obtain the articles. (Students and faculty are not charged to use the library’s interlibrary loan services.)

Databases can be searched by author, title, keywords, or subject headings (or descriptors). Increasingly, full-text PDFs are available for you to download through these proprietary databases.  You can sift through a world of information in minutes by accessing the appropriate databases.

No indexing service covers every journal, magazine, or newspaper published in the world. Databases range from Art Full Text ( a database indexes art periodicals published throughout the world) to Zoological Records (a database that covers worldwide zoological literature from 1864 to date) . There are also general, multidisciplinary databases. 

How to Choose the Appropriate Database

How do you know which ones to use? Your library’s Web site will have a subject-oriented listing of the databases and indexes available. If you are having trouble deciding where to look, this is a good time to ask your librarian!

Although they differ in searching procedures, most databases can be searched by authors, titles of articles, keywords, and subject headings—most often referred to as descriptors. Every database has its own list of descriptors. Looking up “classroom management” in ERIC, an education database, indicates that the preferred descriptor used by ERIC for this concept is “classroom techniques.” APA PsycINFO—an excellent indexing service produced by the American Psychological Association—uses descriptors such as “classroom behavior” and “classroom discipline” for the same concept.  When using indexes online, first try a few keywords of your own, and then look carefully at the complete entries to see if you can identify other useful descriptors to use as research keywords/descriptors.  

Once you have found the citations for the articles, you may find that the database you have selected includes online full text of all the articles indexed. If not, look for a linking tool that may take you to another location in the library’s site for the full text of the articles.  If the full text is not available, look for your library’s interlibrary loan service.  It may take a few days to get a copy of the article you need, so it is a good idea to do your research as early as possible. 

Once you have found the citations for the articles, you may find that the database you have selected includes online full text of all the articles indexed. If not, look for a linking tool that may take you to another location in the library’s site for the full text of the articles.  

Online indexing can also provide additional filtering features, to make searching for specific keywords/descriptors/articles, etc. even more specific – for instance, you can usually search using limited publication dates. You may be able to limit your search to articles in a specific language. Some databases allow users to limit their search to “peer-reviewed journals” (i.e. scholarly journals rather than popular magazines). 

APA PsycINFO is an example of a database with some specialized indexing features.  When you log on to your library’s site and navigate to APA PsycINFO, scroll down the screen and you will see the ability to limit your search to certain age groups, methodologies, and other categories.

Some databases provide a table of contents feature so that you can choose the name of a journal and then browse through each issue. Your library may license a large (and expensive) database called ISI Web of Science. Web of Science has a special “cited reference” feature. You can identify an article and then find out what other writers are citing that article! Then, if you wish, you can review what these other scholars have written about this particular source.

Given the remarkable capabilities of Web of Science (and other databases), you can see why more and more researchers depend on them to locate all of the essays written by a particular scholar or to determine what studies are being referred to most frequently or to obtain a complete listing of all of the articles on a subject that have been cited in a prominent journal.

Why not use Google?  Google may work, but it may also be difficult to tell what kinds of resources you are finding. The library databases will index a vetted set of periodicals, journals, and newspapers which are likely to be more appropriate for your class projects. Also, Google may not provide you with a link to free full-text of items you would like to use. Since many journal articles are still behind a paywall, go through your library and see if the library has set up access to the articles you need.