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Communication: Using Databases

A guide to resources for Communication research, includes links to Communication & Mass Media Complete, ComAbstracts, and Sociological Abstracts


The University Libraries have many, many databases. It can be confusing to select one.

It can be helpful to start your search with a more general database, such as Academic Search Premier, Google Scholar, or Web of Science (which is actually all topics, not just science.) These databases are very broad in scope and have articles on pretty much every topic. The more specific, discipline-related databases can also be very helpful but are also limited in that they generally have articles from a small number of subject-specific journals. Please see the recommended databases section of this guide for lists of databases.

Search terms, also called keywords, are words you select to represent the main concepts of your research topic. Unlike Google and other natural-language based search engines, library databases do not respond to questions or search full sentences. Instead, you must enter specific search terms in database search boxes. These terms allow the database to find articles on your topic. Without the right keywords, you may have difficulty finding relevant articles. Some examples of a keywords relevant to Communication Studies might be "interpersonal communication," which you could combine with all sorts of other keywords, such as "children" or "marriage" or "workplace" or "body language" or "conflict."

Selecting keywords is a multi-step process:

  • Identify the main concepts of your topic
  • Look online or in reference sources such as encyclopedias to come up with words describing your topic
  • Brainstorm synonyms that could also be used to describe your topic
  • Spell out abbreviations
  • Look in any academic articles or news articles you find on your topic to see what terms researchers use
  • Use terms from class/texts
  • Keep track of successful search terms to use in different databases

Common Keywords in Communication: These links list possible keywords for each topic area below. These suggested keywords are just to give you examples and get you started.

  • Phrase Searching: Quotation marks allow you to search a phrase: "media bias." Without quotes, the database will find articles that have both "media" and "bias" in them, but not necessarily in that order. So the search may still bring up relevant articles, but will include some that are not.
  • Truncation: putting a star (*) instead of a suffix/ending to a word allows searching of many forms of a word: child* (searches child, children, childish, childhood.) Race* (searches race, races, but may miss "acial.) Watch out for things like soc* for society as too many words can be returned.

Scholarly peer review (or "refereeing") is a process of having experts in a field evaluate a research paper or book for quality prior to publication. The opinion of the experts (so the "peers" of the author of the paper or book) helps the editors of an academic journal or publisher decide if the work is good enough (or original enough, done with the best methodology, etc.) to publish. The reviewers also usually give recommendations on how the author can improve their work. Peer review is meant to assure that quality research is published.

How peer review is conducted:

  1. The author submits their work to the editor of a journal/scholarly publisher who decides if the article topic fits their scope for publishing. If it fits, they forward the article to expert peer reviewers in that field for review.
  2. The reviewers evaluate the quality, accuracy, methodology, and validity of the manuscript.
  3. Reviewers suggest changes and recommend if the manuscript should be published or not.

How to Identify Peer Reviewed Resources

  • Limit searches to "Peer Reviewed" items:
    • OneSearch (the main library search bar) allows you to filter results to "peer reviewed" items.
    • Many databases also allow you to do this; for example, Academic Search Premier has this feature on the initial search screen - click on the pertinent box to limit the search.
    • In some databases you may have to go to an “advanced” or “expert” search screen to do this. Some databases do not have this filter option.Peer-reviewed articles and publications will generally be from reputable journals or publishers. Do an internet search to find out more about the publisher and author. Peer-reviewed scholarly articles will have a specific format: look for an abstract, introduction, literature review, methods section, discussion, conclusion and bibliography. Generally, they will not have illustrations or be in "popular" publications for the general public.
  • The database (enter this name in the library main search bar) can be used to determine if a journal is indicated peer-reviewed.
    • Type in the exact title of the journal including any initial A, AN, or THE in the title.
    • If your journal title IS displayed, check to see if the journal is refereed (peer reviewed) by looking at the column on the left with the little striped referee shirt symbol. If that symbol is present, that journal is peer reviewed.
  • Examine the journal itself for a declaration of peer-review. You can look on the main website for the journal or on the "masthead" (imprint) of the publication, which is a section at the beginning (or maybe end) of an individual issue that names the editors and affiliated staff.
    • In electronic journals, you will often find a link to "journal homepage" from any article you open.
    • You may need to search the homepage to find their peer review policy, which should include their process for conducting peer review.