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Boost your research skills for your Natural and Built Environment dissertation

What will I learn in this section?

  • Search engines and databases: what's the difference?
  • How to find information.
  • How to access information.

It's important to focus on this thought before you begin this section!

Please bear in mind that it always takes some time and experimentation to develop an effective search. Even if you're an experienced researcher, it will take a little while to work out what works best for an unfamiliar topic. So if the first search you try doesn't work, you've not failed: that's normal! You just need to try a few different approaches.

1. Search engines and databases: what's the difference?

There are lots of different tools you can use to find information. Let's talk terms!

We are all familiar with the term 'search engine' but maybe not so familiar with the term 'database'. It is worth understanding the differences between them and their respective strengths and weaknesses. It's also worth understanding one of the processes that drives them both, 'metadata'!

We also need to understand that there's no one source that can search everything (no, not even popular search engines). You need to use different search tools to find different information.

Search engines tend to work best when there is a single known source you are looking for, such as finding the website of an organisation you are interested in. However, search engines can struggle where you are looking for lots of sources, or don't already know what source you are looking for.

Databases can help in these cases, because they offer you more options to manage your results.


  • Literally 'data about data': so this is additional information about a source that is not included in the source itself. This can be title, author, publisher, publication date, alt text for pictures, location data and so on.
  • Metadata can be automatically generated or produced by people.

Search Engines

  • Uses software to automatically find and index webpages on the internet.
  • Searches both the text of a source and whatever metadata is available.
  • As it is produced by a wide variety of different and unconnected creators, the metadata isn't always consistent or in comparable formats and this limits what can be done with it.
  • Sorts the result list you get by an algorithm: this algorithm is usually a proprietary secret, so not always clear why it orders things the way that it does.


  • Databases search a selected pool of source, chosen by various criteria: for example, this might be sources about a particular subject area or material produced by a particular publisher.
  • Databases include a search engine: but there are additional features that go beyond a simple search engine.
  • Databases add structured, standardised metadata for each source. This means that databases can use this metadata to sort and filter their results. For example, you can sort your results in order of their publication date, or filter your search results to just get peer-reviewed sources, or sources by a particular person or institution.
  • A common kind of metadata that is added to databases are subject heading keywords. This helps get around a common problem when searching, which is that sources may use different terms to describe a topic than you do. In a database, all sources on the same topic are assigned the same keyword, regardless of what terms the authors themselves use, or even what language they write in. That means that if you just find a few of the available articles, you can check to see what keywords have been assigned to that topic: you can then use those keywords to find everything else about that topic in the database, no matter what terms the sources themselves use.

Libraries offer choice!

We have Library Search, which is the library search engine, databases, journal collections, books and so much more! You choose the search tool that is most likely to find the information you need!

2. Use Library Search and specialist resources like databases

What is Library Search?

Library Search is the Hallam Library search engine that you use to find high quality academic resources. Library Search is set up so you can search our books, journals, and many other sources in one go, and return them in one  list that can be refined to show just the kind of resource you need.

This a screenshot of the Library Search box on Library Online - the Library homepage.

Where can I find Library Search?

Library Search can be found on the Library homepage - Library Online.

You mentioned above specialist resources like databases...

Library Search enables you to search almost all of our library resources in one search. Specialist databases are collections of articles, videos or any text or image based resource that you can search as an individual collection. An example would be iSURV or British Standards. 

But, if I can search almost every resource in one search, why would I search an individual database?

That is a really good question! Here are the benefits of searching an individual database:

  • The content is more subject-specific, which removes lots of irrelevant material from your results right from the start.
  • The extra subject metadata and search features make it quicker and easier to filter and find sources in that subject area.
  • Sometimes you can only access certain sources via a particular database.

The decision is yours! We tend to recommend a combination of both approaches depending on what information you are trying to find!

3. How do I access online Library resources?

The Library subscribes to lots of online resources.

Many will require you to login to access the resource and the contents. Most Library resources are accessed by using your SHU login when prompted.

  • If you are using Library Search, we recommend you sign into Library Search at the beginning of your session to make sure you can access full text.
  • If you are using a database or another specialist resource, you may be able to access the full text within the resource or you may need to use the SHU Links to access the full text.
  • Some resources have individual registration processes and require a user to register to use the resource.
  • If a resource is unique and does not provide access using your SHU login, you can find out how to access the resource in the A-Z List of databases.

Remember to always sign out of any resources you use e.g. Library Search, especially on a shared device or computer, to ensure your searches remain private and your personal settings cannot be adjusted by anyone else.

Here are a selection of links to library help pages and FAQ pages about using resources. 

4. Use your subject guide and specialist resources!

What is a subject guide?

Subject guides  are written by your subject librarian and designed to help you find and use specific academic resources. You'll find information regarding books, eBooks, specific journals and key databases that are relevant to your subject. 

                             Activity 1: Watch this short video to find out how subject guides can make you research days easier!

5. Use review articles to help you get into your subject!

Using review articles is a really good way to get into a new subject straight away!

One of the quickest ways to find a review article is to use a database.

What is a review article?

A review article is a journal article themed around a specific topic. it is a secondary source as the writers review other researchers work and answer the research question based on observations from looking at multiple sources. Review articles are secondary sources.

Why do you recommend this approach rather than using Library Search?

It is much quicker and easier to find a review article in a database with a review article filter rather than searching in Library Search. If you use Library Search to find this type of article, you will need to scan each article to see if it is a review. The review filter in Library Search returns mostly book reviews.

We recommend using databases like Web of Science, Scopus or other databases on your subject guide to find review articles because many databases have additional search filters like article types that you can apply to your search.

Try a large journal article database* which covers a broad range of subjects:

  • Web of Science. An added bonus with this database is the inclusion of conference proceedings. 
  • ProQuest Central. An added bonus with this database is the increased number of magazines and trade / professional publications.

*There are other databases you could choose to use and they are all listed in the relevant section of your subject guide above!

Do all resources have article type filters?

That is a great question! Many databases will have article or document type filters but there may be some that do not. If they do not, you would have to evaluate the article and decide what type of article you working with.

6. Balance up academic journals with professional and industry publications

It can be harder to find professional publications that professionals in the field would be using in their day to day work.

It is little harder because you need to have that specialist knowledge and the publications can be a little harder to identify in search results as you need to know what you are looking for!  Trade magazines or publications tend not to be included in Browze eJournals.

Here are ways in which you can identify the publications:

  • take a look on your professional bodies / organisations websites to find out what is the featured publication for that organisation.
  • ask your lecturers.
  • ask any professionals that give guest lecturer sessions or talks for their recommendations.
  • use the resources that make it easier to find this information and have magazine filters like ProQuest Central, Business Source Premier or Scopus.

The Built Environment industry has a number of well established professional publications and trade magazines written for construction and property professionals.

Here are a few examples within the Built Environment which are available within Library Search.

7. What other specialists sources would work for my dissertation?

It really depends what your dissertation topic is!

You really need to take a look on your subject guides at the available resources you could tap into. Here are some examples of specialist databases. You can find the full range on your subject guides!

8. Search techniques that will save you time!

                             Activity 2: Watch the short video to show you how to improve your searches.

This video is here to make sure that you are all aware of how these techniques can be used and make your searching time more effective!


Using OR will get you more results: concrete OR cement. So OR equals more!

Using AND will narrow your search results: concrete AND pavement. So AND is narrowing!

Truncation will find alternative word endings and plurals: sustain* will find sustain, sustainability, sustain*

Phrase search means you control the search and your search result will only find what is within the  quotation marks "self healing concrete". If we do not do this, databases and search engines tend to put AND between each word.

The little words that you use to connect your different search terms have a huge impact on your search results! 

9. Help! My search doesn't work!

It might be that your search doesn't work exactly as you hoped, and you get too few or too many results.

As we said at the start, it's usual for a search not to be perfect on the first attempt. But if your search isn't producing the results you hoped, there are some things you can try

Too few results

  • Check nothing is mis-spelled or mistyped. It sounds silly, but it happens to everyone at some point!
  • Rather than searching for your entire topic in one big search, try searching for each element separately at first and then combining them later. It might be that there's just one or two search terms which need adjusting, and this helps you pick out where the problem might be.
  • You can also combine the results of several smaller-scale searches to create a bigger picture: this can often be more effective than trying to find everything in one big search.
  • Check your search syntax (eg, the AND, OR, etc that you use to link your search terms): It might be they are connecting the search terms in the wrong way: it can easily happen with big, complexes searches
  • Try swapping to another search tool: it might be the one you are using isn't suitable for what you want. The Library subject guides can guide you through the different search tools available for your subject area. 
  • If there is still nothing on exactly what you want, trying using related material in a different context: for examples, the same topic but in other regions or countries. 

Too many results

  • Use the filters on the database (usually along the left-side of the results page): this can help you narrow down the results by age, type of material , subject area, etc
  • Try swapping to another search tool, particularly if you are using a general-purpose search engine. It might be that a subject-specific search tool helps you narrow the results more effectively. You can find more about such search tools on the library subject guide.
  • Check your search syntax (eg, the AND, OR, etc that you use to link your search terms): It might be they are connecting the search terms in the wrong way: it can easily happen with big, complexes searches.
  • If you are still getting too many results, consider limiting the topic you are searching to a more specific context, for example a certain place, time or group of people. Do consult with your supervisor before doing this: but dissertation topic can sometimes turn out to be unmanageably huge, and setting some sort of limit can make it easier to handle. Even professional researchers sometimes have to set limits to make it possible to effectively research a topic with the people and resources available.

If you need help with any of the above...

The Library can offer advice on how to improve your searches, develop your search skills and suggest resources related to specific research topics. You can find out how to get help from the Library in the Support section of this guide and we can help you using Library Chat or you can book a one to one appointment with a subject librarian.

We are coming to the end of this section and have covered a lot of content!

There is one last activity!

                             Activity 3: Answer the following question about your search preferences!

Take a break

Congratulations you have completed three sections! 

Time to take a break - maybe take a look at the Wellbeing Wednesday blog posts in the Hallam Library Blog. This week we were focusing on how we can connect with Nature to improve our wellbeing.