Studying Effectively

Search skills for subject databases

Subject databases are primarily subject-based collections of journal articles. Some may also include other resources, such as book chapters, conference proceedings and theses. Each database covers a slightly different subject area, although some of the content may overlap.

NUsearch [UK, China, Malaysia] covers all subject areas and is a good place to start your search. Use NUsearch to find books, journal articles, conference proceedings, book chapters, theses and more.

Searching multiple databases appropriate to your topic will help you find as much relevant information as possible. This requires a structured approach by building up your search step by step.

Before you start you should plan your search.  Think about:

  • Keywords you could use to describe you topic
  • Search techniques you could apply to your search
  • How you could combine your keywords to develop a structured search

For further help with planning a search go to Search skills.

Accessing your subject databases

You can access your subject databases from the Databases tab on NUsearch  [UK, China, Malaysia]. Search for a specific database name or browse the subject categories.

More about accessing your subject databases

Sign in to NUsearch before you begin to ensure full functionality and access to our wider collection of online resources.

To access a subject database if you are working off campus you may be asked to login with your University username and password. If you are a UK student you may also find it useful to download our Library Access browser extension. This provides easy access to online resources wherever you are.



Searching for keywords

Databases look for your keywords in the titles and abstracts of references. To search effectively using keywords go to Search skills for further help.

Some databases include additional features to help you refine and focus your keywords further, including field searching and using a thesaurus.

Field searching

Field searching allows you to look for keywords in specific areas, or 'fields', within a reference to help you refine your search. 

More about field searching

For example:

  • If your search finds too many results, you could look for your keywords in the 'title' field only
  • If you are looking for articles by a specific author, you could use the 'author' field to search

Field searching in NUsearch [UK, China, Malaysia]

  • Go to Advanced search
  • Select the field to search - e.g. Title or Author  

Field searching in subject databases:

  • Most databases allow you to select a specific field from the main search page - e.g. Title or Author


Using a database thesaurus

Using a database thesaurus enables you to identify preferred keywords for specific topics. Thesaurus terms are often called 'subject headings'. They ensure you are using the most appropriate words in your search.

More about using a database thesaurus

You can:

  • Search for a keyword - the database will automatically check the thesaurus and identify the most appropriate term for you to use
  • Look terms up in the thesaurus before you search

Using a database thesaurus can be helpful where:

  • Different keywords are used to describe the same subject, e.g. vaccination or immunisation
  • There are technical and common terms which mean the same thing, e.g. rubella or german measles
  • There are differences between American and British spellings, e.g. behaviour or behavior
  • You wish to search for a very broad subject area, e.g. ecology, or a generic group, e.g. birds
  • A word in common use has a specific meaning in the context of a subject, e.g. stress


Evaluating your results

It is unlikely your first search will find exactly what you're looking for. You may need to make changes to your search and try again.

Too many results?

Your search may be too broad. Think about how you can refine your search to make it more specific.

More about refining your search
  • Can you include additional keywords to focus and narrow your search?
  • Can you apply any search functionality - e.g. phrase searching so your keywords are more specific? See Search skills for further help.
  • Can you apply limits to your search to filter the results - e.g. publication year or language?

Applying limits in NUsearch [UK, China, Malaysia]:

  • Browse and apply appropriate limits to your results - e.g. type of resource, publication years, language, online availability

Applying limits in subject databases:

  • Most databases include similar pre-defined limits to help you refine your search
  • You can apply these once you have a list of results


Too few results?

Your search may be too specific. Think about how you can broaden your results.

More about broadening your search
  • Think about synonyms - can you use alternative keywords to describe the same topic?
  • Can you apply any search functionality - e.g. truncation or wildcards to look for different word variations?  See Search skills for further help.
  • Are you using the most appropriate subject databases for your topic?


Saving searches and creating alerts

Most databases, including NUsearch, allow you to save your searches and your search results.

More about saving searches and creating alerts
  • Save relevant references from your search so you don't lose them
  • Save your search strategy and re-run your search at a later date without having to re-type your search
  • Create search alerts so a database will automatically re-run your search at specified intervals and email the results to you

Saving searches and creating alerts on NUsearch [UK, China, Malaysia]: 

  • Sign in with your University username and password
  • Use the Pin icon from your results list to save references to My Favorites
  • Use Save Query from your results list to add to My Favorites
  • Go to Saved Searches in My Favorites to manually re-run a search or use the Bell icon to create an alert

Saving searches and creating alerts on subject databases:

  • Register with the database and set up a personal login
  • Most databases allow you to select references you want to save from your results list by using check boxes - you often have the option to download or email selected references, or save to a personal folder on the database 
  • Options to save searches and create alerts are usually on the results page
  • Guidance is usually provided on database help pages

Further help is available on Saving searches and creating alerts.



Further reading

Developing search strategies

  • Online research & information skills: Malaysia

Reading and interpreting sources and data

Finding resources 

Finding Journals

Being organised


People who can help

Talk to someone in your school or a specialist support service


Studying Effectively

Kings Meadow Campus
Lenton Lane
Nottingham, NG7 2NR

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 5151
fax: +44 (0) 115 951 3666
Contact us