Literature Searching Q&A #1 General Questions

Welcome to a new blog series about searching for high quality scholarly material using bibliographic databases!

Remember that the Literature Searching Guide (click here to access it via the Library Moodle site in the Library Guides section), includes detailed information on how to plan your search, tips for effective searching, a list of recommended databases and more! Through this series we aim to answer some of the most frequently asked questions, so we hope you will find this Q&A a useful addition to the guide.


What is a bibliographic database?

Bibliographic databases are organised digital indexes of references to published literature, particularly journal articles and conference proceedings.  What makes them distinctive is that they contain rich subject descriptions of material in the form of keywords, subject classification terms and abstracts.  Some databases may be general in scope (e.g. Scopus) or cover a specific academic discipline like Education (e.g. the British Education Index).

Why use a bibliographic database to search for material?

There are a number of advantages in using a bibliographic database:

  • They often include a thesaurus which can help you to select your search terms
  • They enable you to search for and access high quality scholarly material
  • They are brilliant for conducting a thorough, systematic & exhaustive search of the literature
  • You can conduct searches using sophisticated techniques, be precise about what you are searching for and achieve relevant results
  • They include an account facility which enables you to save searches and easily update results

What is the role of iDiscover?

We recommend that you only use iDiscover to search for books and known journal articles.  There is no in-built thesaurus for iDiscover so you have to think of all of the search terms yourself. It is also difficult to perform a structured search on iDiscover so you often end up with thousands of results to analyse, many of which are not relevant.

What does ‘Peer Review’ mean?

Articles that are peer-reviewed mean they have been approved by a panel of experts on an editorial board before they are accepted for publication; for this reason, peer-reviewed journals are often regarded as the best in their field.

Not all articles go through the peer-review process – for example, those in professional magazines do not usually undergo the same scrutiny. So although you can read these to build your subject knowledge, they are not recommended for extensive use in your work.

When searching bibliographic databases, you can usually limit your search to academic journals/peer-reviewed articles.

This feels awkward to use. Why can’t I just search Google Scholar?

It is not possible to search Google Scholar in the same way that you can a bibliographic database.  There is no thesaurus facility for selecting  ‘controlled vocabulary’ or subject terms and you cannot combine terms together in the same systematic way that you can using databases.  There are also no facilities to save your searches on Google Scholar. It takes a little time, but will be a worthwhile skill to have in your current and any future research projects. Remember, you can find guidance on search strategy, keywords, database coverage and information evaluation in the Literature Searching Guide on the Library Moodle Site.

What if the material isn’t available online?

You can check iDiscover to see if the University holds a physical copy of that journal, which you can scan or consult in one of the many libraries. If Cambridge doesn’t hold the journal, it may be possible to obtain the article on InterLibrary Loan but unfortunately there is a charge for that.  If you have any questions about accessing resources, please just contact the Education Library Team (

How do I access materials in other libraries?

Most Faculties and Departments in Cambridge have their own dedicated subject library which can be used by members of the University from other Faculties. Members of the University are also entitled to borrow designated materials from the University Library. While much of the collection is on open shelves, some needs to be ordered in advance, or consulted in reading rooms in the UL. You can find more specific information about materials on iDiscover, or contact the UL at with specific questions. Material from other Cambridge libraries cannot be borrowed from/delivered to the Education Library, or returned to the Education Library.

What are some tips for finding resources other than electronic journals (like, books)?

If you are exploring bibliographic databases for material related to your research, you can also check out the book reviews or other material which may be relevant to your research. You can find information on Searching for Print and Electronic books on the Literature Searching Guide. If you already know the title you are looking for, or would like to directly search for material already held in the Cambridge Libraries, you can find tips for searching the library catalogue, iDiscover, on the FAQs of the Library Moodle Site, or check out our Top Tips for Searching iDiscover on the Library Blog.


Did you find this helpful? Watch this space for part 2 of this series, ‘Planning your search’, coming next week!