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How to identify and use open access databases in your research


There are many open access databases out there. These allow you to search for articles, journals, repositories, policies, books, images and much more. An increasing number of universities, research institutions and government agencies are creating open access databases with freely available materials online.


So how do you find the best open access database to meet your needs and once you do, what are some tips for navigating the content? The following questions can help guide your choice of an open access database.



What type of content do you want?

Maybe you want to find a range of articles in your field of research or a journal that publishes in your area of study. Perhaps you are looking for a book or past dissertations to share with your students. Or maybe you are interested in finding datasets that are being shared through a repository. You might want to find policies on open access for a specific journal or funder. Open access databases exist for storing different types of materials, so knowing what you are searching for is key.



Open access journals

There are many databases that provide access to open access journals. One of the most well known is the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). This directory provides access to high-quality, peer-reviewed journals. DOAJ is curated by the community and funded through donations. Currently, DOAJ has a searchable database of 15,231 journals and over 5 million articles. The advanced search engine for DOAJ allows you to search for a journal or an individual article. You can search by keywords and filter your search by subject, type of license, publisher and whether or not the journal has the DOAJ seal. DOAJ periodically updates the functionality of their search engines and soon they will relaunch a new website with more sophisticated search functions.



Open access repositories

Open Access repositories are collections of full-text articles available free of charge online. An increasing number of academic institutions are creating and hosting their own open access repository. For example Stanford University in the United States hosts the Stanford Digital Repository where academics and students can share scholarly work. Open DOAR is a directory of open access repositories. The Open DOAR directory has a number of features for helping you narrow your search. You can filter by country, subject, content type (journal, article, book, dataset, etc.) and repository type (institutional, governmental, disciplinary).



Open access policies

If you are interested in exploring open access policies of funders or publishers you can search using Sherpa Juliet and Sherpa Romeo.


Sherpa Juliet helps you search for specific funders’ conditions for open access publication. In line with the open access movement, many funders now require articles on the findings of research they have funded to be published in an open access outlet. A number of funders also have requirements for archiving the data associated with the research. It is important for academics and researchers to know about the open access policies of a specific funder either before applying to them for funding or if they have already been awarded a grant from that organization. Sherpa Juliet includes policy information on funders from 31 countries.


Sherpa Romeo aggregates publisher and journal open access policies from around the world. You can search using a specific journal title or publisher name. You can also browse the database by country and publisher. If you are interested in publishing your article in a traditional journal with a preprint deposited in a repository you need to know the open access policy of that journal. For example if you search for the American Journal of Educational Research you will find that this journal allows for open access publishing. There is no embargo period and the copyright is retained by the author. As stated on conducting the search in Sherpa Romeo, this is on the condition that ‘the published source must be acknowledged with citation, must link to published article, non-commercial use only.’



Open access books and dissertations

Maybe you are interested in finding open access books for your own research, or for a course you are teaching. One of the most popular directories for finding books is the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB). DOAB is a nonprofit foundation based at the National Library in the Hague and the directory is a service provided by the foundation. Through the advanced search function you can search for books by title, ISBN, author, keywords, abstract, publisher and year. You can also browse the database for books by topic or subject area.


Another very useful open access directory is Open Access Theses and Dissertations. This directory houses more than 5 million graduate theses and dissertations from over 1100 academic institutions around the world. You may want to introduce this directory to your graduate students as a useful resource for them on their degree journey.



What are some tips for searching open access databases?

Once you have selected the database you are going to use, you need to think through the search techniques you will employ. Here are some tips to help you get the most from your open access database searches.

    • Always plan your search. Generate a list of keywords and phrases related to your topic of interest. If you are early in your thinking about this topic you can conduct a broader search for the topic on Google which will help you generate a list of keywords and phrases. Searching in Google Scholar and looking at article titles for your topic helps you to identify some key areas to focus on.
    • Use the database filters. Familiarize yourself with the filters in the database and use them effectively. For most databases you can filter by year, author, article type, etc. and you can use multiple filters in one search. These help narrow your search.
    • Look for the number of citations when searching for articles. Sometimes the number of times an article has been cited is included with the title in the search results. Articles with many citations can indicate the importance of the work in the field. Of course, articles that have been published for a longer period of time may also have more citations.
    • Use the reference list of key articles as a guide. When you find one or two key pieces of work in your area, published by authors who are well known in your field, the reference list for those articles can be a great guide for further searches.
    • Refine your search. Searching for academic content is an iterative process. You typically enter your search with a strategy to guide you. The results from your initial search may not be as focused as you need, or not contain what you were looking for. As you examine the results from your search, use the information to refine your search. Perhaps you need to narrow your search for more focused results, or broaden your search to capture what you need. Explore the results and see how this shapes your keywords and phrases. Sometimes clicking on the results leads to other articles that better meet your criteria.



As the open access movement grows and expands, there is more and more content available to us. On the one hand, this is very beneficial for researchers as you have access to articles, journals, data and other scholarly work. On the other hand, the sheer volume of content can be overwhelming. Finding a trusted open access database is key to supporting you in searching the open access content you need. In addition having a search plan and strategy will allow you to use your time more effectively and efficiently.


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