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Cut to the Chase using Database Thesauri

Electronic databases are a fantastic research tool. They allow one to quickly search for and find relevant articles, reviews, studies and other pieces of scholarly information. In many databases, if you are using the first term to pop into your head, or even what you consider to be the standard term(s) for a topic when searching, it’s very likely you’re missing a major piece of the puzzle. This is where a database thesaurus comes in handy.

When we think of thesauri, we usually think of Roget’s Thesaurus, which listed terms and provided their synonyms, antonyms and other related words. A database thesaurus, however, is slightly different. A database thesaurus provides descriptors, which are essentially standardized subject terms that are assigned to the records in the database. Every article covering the same topic, regardless of the various terminology used in the articles, is assigned the same descriptor.

As an example, we’ll look at PsycInfo, a popular database covering psychology and social science issues. When you access PsycInfo, (see the listing in Databases and Indexes), you will notice a “thesaurus��? tab directly above the search box. Before doing a search, it is useful to check your search terms in the thesaurus.

Why is this important? Assume that you are looking for information on substance abuse. Common sense might indicate to use “substance abuse��? in a keyword/subject search. However, when we enter “substance abuse��? into the thesaurus you will see that the descriptor in PsycInfo is actually “drug abuse.��? If you had done a simple keyword search for “substance abuse,��? you probably would have come up with some results. However, if you select “drug abuse��? as a descriptor from the thesaurus, you’ll receive relevant results pertaining to the topic of substance abuse, drug abuse or any other synonyms that may describe the topic.

A database thesaurus may also supply narrower or broader terms, which may help you craft a more effective search. By clicking on the descriptor “drug abuse��? you will notice narrower terms such as “alcohol abuse��? or “drug dependency,��? and broader terms such as “behavior disorders��? or “drug usage.��? Using the database’s terminology for your topic helps you "cut to the chase" in terms of finding comprehensive and relevant results.

Since each database is set up slightly differently, you may wish to look for a “help��? function to assist with using the thesaurus in a particular database. Unfortunately, not every database has a thesaurus, so you may have to try searching for a variety of synonyms to your topic.

If you need further assistance or have any questions about how to use database thesauri, we are happy to help. Drop by the Reference Desk, call us at 442-3691, or send us an e-mail.

Blog post created by Mike Daly