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Research databases

A database is defined as an organized collection of information. In other words, databases are organized information/data storage and collection centers. They may be broad to cover nearly all disciplines or have a narrow focus on particular fields of knowledge. They can also be free or subscription-based. Free digital or online databases are often devoid of in-depth indexing and lack the capacity to index proprietary sources. In contrast, subscription-based databases are broader in index scope and have more advanced features and search capabilities. 

Why use a database?

  • Research databases provide access to a large collection of all kinds of useful materials (books, peer-reviewed journal papers, videos, images, quantitative data, etc).
  • Databases have become a necessary tool for academic excellence since they emerged.
  • They are usually credible sources because publishers check their materials for accuracy and reliability.
  • They provide speedy access to information from the comfort of a home, office, school, etc.
  • Materials are simultaneously available to all users unlike in physical libraries where print materials may be borrowed away for some time by other users.
  • Free databases are valuable resources for those that cannot afford the costs of gathering information/data.
  • Subscription-based databases are often sources of information/data that may be absent in free databases and physical libraries
  • Help researchers learn about the latest trends and global best practices in terms of searching for information/data.

Examples of databases

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is a free online database owned by the operators of the Google web search engine. Launched in November 2004, the database contains a collection of articles from peer-reviewed journals, abstracts, citations, court opinions, conference papers, preprints, books, theses, dissertations, patents, and other scholarly literature. These materials are sourced from other online repositories, academic publishers, universities, and other organizations as well as websites. The operators of Google Scholar do not publish information about the size of the database but scientometric research suggests that it had about 389 million documents (the largest in the world) as of 2018. Google Scholar has previously attracted criticism for not vetting journals as well as for adding predatory journals in its index.

You can read more about how to use Google Scholar in our previous guide.

Web of Science

Web of Science is a multidisciplinary database with records that date back to 1900 to the present. Originally owned by the Institute of Scientific Information, it is now operated by Clarivate Analytics, a branch of Thomson Reuters, and boasts of nearly 171 million records.  The database operates an independent and thorough editorial process that ensures quality, accuracy, complete indexing, and a very organized data structure.

The Web of Science database had a collection of 12,000 high-impact journals and 160,000 conference proceedings as of February 2017. This collection includes open-access journals that cover several academic disciplines and were selected through impact evaluation.


JSTOR (short form of Journal Storage) is both a free (old articles and Open Access journals and ebooks can be read and downloaded without subscription) and subscription-based database or digital library established in 1995 in New York, USA.  It helps students, teachers, and other researchers or information seekers to access a broad variety of content via an efficient research and teaching platform.  


The database initially stored only digitized back issues of academic journals but now grants 24/7 access to over 12 million academic journal articles, books, and primary sources across 75 disciplines. It has a client base that spans over 170 countries and a network of more than 10,000 institutions all over the world.

APA PsycInfo

APA PsycInfo is an abstracts database of the American Psychological Association that offers access to psychological literature from the 1800s to the present but also includes records from the 1600s and 1700s.  The database combines in-depth content with precise indexing for ease of usage by visitors. Among its contents are bibliographic citations, abstracts, descriptive information, and cited references. However, full texts are not available at APA PsycInfo. 

Subscription to APA PsycInfo depends on the status of the subscriber. For instance, a person searching from his or her home or office can get daily access for a nominal fee or subscribe to a database plan to enjoy unlimited access while institutions wishing to access the database can obtain a license through PsycInfo’s many distribution vendors.


ScienceDirect is a website that offers subscription-based access to a vast database of scientific publications, including medical research. It was created in March 1997 and is a branch of Anglo-Dutch publisher, Elsevier, the largest publisher of scientific materials in the world.

The ScienceDirect database holds the most digital collection of full-text and bibliographic information on science, technology, and medicine in the world. Albeit the database mainly focuses on the areas mentioned above, it also stocks a significant number of humanities and social science journals and papers. More specifically, ScienceDirect journals are grouped into:

  • Physical Sciences and Engineering: Astronomy, Chemical engineering, Computer sciences, Energy, Mathematics, Metallurgy, and Physics.
  • Life Sciences: Biochemistry, Environmental Sciences, Genetic and Molecular Biology, Immunology and Microbiology.
  • Health Sciences: Medical and Dental Sciences, Pharmaceutics, and Veterinary medicine.
  • Social Sciences and Humanities: Accounting & Economics, Arts, Business, Management, Psychology, and other Social Sciences.

The ScienceDirect database is home to more than:

  • 18 million articles and chapters
  • 2,500 peer-reviewed journals, over
  • 42,000 ebooks
  • 1.4 million Open Access (free to read and download) articles.

Article abstracts are available for free, but access to various formats of the full texts (e.g., PDF) of the abstracts requires either a subscription or pay-per-view purchase.

Database selection tips

There are a number of considerations when selecting databases for research. Some of them include:

  • the subject areas covered by the database
  • the date range of the publications
  • the nature of the publications (e.g., publications from university libraries, scholarly journal papers, professional reports, images of artworks, articles from encyclopedias, grey literature, etc)
  • whether full-text articles are always available

In conclusion, the above (and other) information about database selection can be found in each of the numerous databases on the internet. Some lecturers also provide useful tips about the most suitable databases for their courses in their textbooks and study manuals or during class lectures. Consulting experts like librarians can also help.

Also check out

This post was produced as part of a research guide series by Avidnote which is a free web-based app that helps you to write and organize your academic writing online. Click here to find out more.