What is a citation database?

Citation databases are collections of referenced papers/ articles/ books and other material entered into an online system (database) in a structured and consistent way. All the information relating to a single document (author, title, publication details, abstract, and perhaps the full text) make up the ‘record’ for that document. Each of these items of information becomes a separate ‘field’ in that record and enables the document to be retrieved via any of these items, or by keywords.

Why use a citation database?

A citation database allows you to access published, peer-reviewed, high-quality material such as journal articles, research reports, systematic reviews, conference proceedings, editorials, and related works. When a document is originally entered into a database it is analysed for its key subjects, and descriptors (MeSH terms in MEDLINE, PubMed etc.) are assigned to it. MeSH terms are Medical Subject Headings, which is a controlled vocabulary thesaurus used for indexing and cataloguing articles for medical and biomedical purposes. These MeSH terms allow precise searching as the databases search for these specific terms in a hierarchical order.

Searches can then be limited, for example, by author or title fields, or year/s of publication, and keywords can be focused and searched separately. Searches undertaken in citation databases are therefore more precise, and comprehensive than searches on general internet search engines and the results are of consistently higer quality and reliability.

Why not just use Google or Google Scholar?

Searching on Google, or similar internet search engines, will return at least a few sources on almost any topic, but finding high-quality, reliable, and the most relevant sources is less likely. Google is an internet search engine that returns and ranks results on the ‘basis of popularity’ with no filters to remove bias or unreliable information. Results returned are from ‘all internet material’. There are many peer-reviewed scholarly articles that do not appear on open websites so they cannot be searched by Google due to subscription requirements. Internet searches also return many results of dubious quality.

By comparison, Google Scholar provides a simple way to ‘broadly search for scholarly literature’. It searches across many disciplines and a variety of sources. It ranks a document by where it was published, who it was written by, as well as how often and how recently it has been cited in other scholarly literature.

If you were to use only Google or Google Scholar, significant articles would not be retrieved due to sorting, vocabulary, and subscription limitations of these search engines. However it can sometimes help to find the full text of an article, and occasionally will retrieve useful information not found in a database search.

Google and Google Scholar are useful in certain situations. More information can be found at Tips for using Google Scholar [1]