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Best Way To Search Research Papers

SUMMARY

  • Find credible sources using tools that are designed to find the types of sources you need.

LINKS

Here are some fantastic resources and tips on how to use them to their fullest extent:

Librarian/Digital Media Specialist/Teacher

– Tell one of these people your research topic and ask them to point you towards useful sources. Chances are that they know more about what’s available about your particular topic than you do. Depending on the size of your school, you may have a subject area librarian for the particular type of research you are doing. Some universities, for instance, have specialist librarians for topics like music, art, and humanities.

Tip: When asking your librarian or teacher, just be sure to be tactful. Remember: librarians are there to help, but they won’t do all your research for you.

Academic journals

– These journals are a great way to find cutting edge research on your topic. Academic journals add credibility and professionalism to a paper. They work well for both humanities and scientific papers. Most schools/universities have a subscription to a large database of academic journals. Some commonly used databases are JSTOR and EBSCO Host. If you don’t know what types of services your school subscribes to, ask your teacher/librarian about them.

Another great way to access academic papers is Google Scholar. It is a search tool that finds scholarly articles–academic journals, patents, theses, court proceedings, and more. Google Scholar displays how many times an academic piece of literature was cited, which is a rough numerical indicator of how influential the research was. Google Scholar also has link under each posting to help you find related articles.

Microsoft has a competitor to Google Scholar that is very similar, Microsoft Academic Search. Microsoft’s tool works particularly well for technical papers in fields such as physics, mathematics, biology, and engineering.

Books

– Books are still one of the best ways to find credible information about a source. Some fields such as the humanities prefer their students use books for sources rather than websites, since books typically contain more detailed information (and perhaps more in-depth thinking) than websites do. Books can be found on your school or public library website. Type in keywords related to your topic in the search field, and see what kinds of literature comes up. Write down the call number of the book so that you can find it within your library. Ask your librarian for help if you’re not sure how your library is organized.

Google has another service, Google Books, that will help you find books related to your topic. Just type your research topic into the field and Google Books will provide you with a list of relevant books. Once you click on a book you like, Google Books will give you a preview of the book and information related to buying the book or finding it in your library.

Websites

– Websites are sources you should approach with caution. Some experts publish great information on the Internet, but there’s a lot of bad information out there as well. The trick is to weed out the unreliable information. The section entitled “Evaluating sources for credibility” is all about that process. Here, we’ll discuss some great resources that will help you find good information.

Tip: Multipurpose search engines (Google, Bing, and Yahoo) aren’t necessarily trying to provide you with the best academic results. They help people with a lot of things (shopping, searching for flights, comparing restaurants). You don’t want all of these sorts of results to get mixed up in your research!

Here are some tools that help you find information for a particular field of interest:

SubjectName of toolComments
MedicalPubMedSearchable database of academic medical literature; managed by the US National Library of Medicine.
MedicalGoPubMedA feature-rich compilation of academic medical literature.
MedicalMedline PlusEasy-to-read guides and videos; not as technical as other medical search engines; managed by the National Institutes of Health,
HumanitiesJURNA curated search engine for humanities researchers.
HumanitiesProject MuseA database of over 200 non-profit publishers.
EconomicsNBER – National Bureau of Economic ResearchSearchable database of economic papers.
CrimeNational Criminal Justice Reference ServicesA database of articles about issues pertaining to the justice system, including court cases, crime prevention, drugs, etc.
GeneralOAIsterFeature-rich search tool for a variety of different sources; managed by the OCLC.
GeneralRefseekA powerful, general-purpose search engine that finds websites, academic papers, books, newspapers, and more. The site has a variety of features that help you narrow down your search.
GeneralSweet SearchA search engine crafted specifically for students. Every website that shows up as search result has been hand-picked by research experts.
GeneraliSeekAn education-focused general search engine with helpful tools to narrow down your search
Generalipl2The site contains a search engine and an index of helpful, credible sites arranged by topic.
GeneralEasyBib Research (Beta)EasyBIb research makes the bibliographies on our site searchable, so you can look at sources about your topic that other students are using.
ChemistryPubChemContains academic chemistry information; managed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
PhilosophyPhilPapersA database of academic papers related to philosophy.
ScienceScience.govA resource of scientific papers and information; overseen by the US government.
ScienceScirusA search engine geared towards scientific information.
ScienceDirectory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)A database of scholarly scientific information.
StatisticsUS Census BureauStatistics in the US, arranged topically (Education, Business, Agriculture, etc.).
StatisticsCIA World FactbookStatistics, reports, maps, history, and other information about 267 countries.

Tip: Many schools have online topic pages, where the school’s librarians have grouped together helpful resources dedicated to a particular topic like chemistry, history, or religious studies. The LibGuides at Rice University is one example.

 

1) A note on large search engines (Google, Bing, and Yahoo)

SUMMARY

  • Use Google when you are doing preliminary research or looking for a particular source
  • In other cases, you’re probably better off using a more academically-oriented source.

LINKS

As far as research is concerned, Google is a double-edged sword. (The pros/cons of Google apply to other major search engines such as Bing and Yahoo as well.)

First, the benefits of Google’s search engine: It’s fast and provides you with a lot of information.

But the list of negatives is weighty:

  • Many of Google’s search results are biased and non-academic.

    Several of the websites that appear in Google’s results are written by businessmen who are trying to sell you something. They aren’t interested in presenting you with unbiased data.

  • Google’s search results are tailored to you

    (based on your past browsing history, your location, the sites you’ve visited previously, etc.). The problem with this individualization of search results is that Google is not providing you with the best information, it’s giving you what it thinks you’ll click on. Those may be two separate things.

  • Google’s results are focused on information available on the internet space that is easily accessed.

    There is a large amount of great information available on the “invisible web” that Google cannot find. The invisible web consists of sites that are not linked to externally, which makes them hidden from Google’s searching and indexing software.

For these reasons, we have a couple of reservations about using Google’s search engine for research purposes. To help, we’ve drafted a couple general rules about when and when not to use Google.

Use Google’s search engine…

  • When you’re doing preliminary research (assessing the depth and breadth of your topic).
  • When you know of a specific source, and you just need to find it on the Internet.

Try using another resource other than Google’s search engine…

  • When you want to find an academic article.
  • When you’re looking for a primary source.
  • When you’re looking for a technical paper.

 

2) A note on Wikipedia

SUMMARY:

  • Information on Wikipedia can be edited by anyone–not necessarily an expert.
  • Use Wikipedia as a starting point for your research.
  • Check Wikipedia’s references at the bottom of the page. Those sources are more likely to be credible than Wikipedia itself.

LINKS:

Like Google’s search engine, Wikipedia is a mixed bag. It provides a great deal of relevant information in a very fast manner, but that information is not necessarily credible. Content on Wikipedia can be edited by anyone–not necessarily an expert or credible author.

The editors at Wikipedia have come a long way in policing the site for bad posts and flagging items without citations; but you should always be suspect of information on the site because of its public nature.

Therefore, Wikipedia is best used at the start of your research to help you get a sense of the breadth and depth of your topic. It should never be cited in an academic paper.

Another reason why Wikipedia should not be cited in an academic research paper is that it aims to be like an encyclopedia–a source of reference information, not scholarly research or primary or secondary sources. One must delineate between general reference for general knowledge and scholarly sources for in-depth knowledge and research. Facts from reputable encyclopedias or similar sources can be used to supplement a paper, but keep in mind that these sources won’t contain any juicy analysis or scholarly study.

Perhaps the most useful part of a Wikipedia page is the “References” section at the bottom, which contains links to relevant sites that are often more credible than the Wikipedia page itself. Use a discerning eye when viewing these citations and apply the best practices of evaluating credible information (see “Evaluating sources for credibility”).

Few aspects of scientific work may be as crucial—and yet as easy to neglect—as reading the literature. Beginning a new research project or writing a grant application can be good opportunities for extensive literature searches, but carving out time to keep abreast of newly published papers on a regular basis is often challenging. The task is all the more daunting today, with the already vast literature continuing to grow at head-spinning speed.

To help you keep track of the literature and avoid feeling too overwhelmed, Science Careers asked scientists in a diverse range of fields to discuss how they integrate searching for papers, and reading them, into their working routine. Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Why is it important to keep up with the literature, and what are the challenges?

Without keeping up with the literature, I can't know what other people are doing or contextualize my work. In addition, through reading the literature I can find potential solutions to scientific barriers I am facing in my own research. But I do find it difficult to integrate this task into my daily routine. The demands on scientists in terms of outreach, administration, grant writing, teaching, and more are tremendous, and there are only 24 hours in a day.
- Lynn Kamerlin, associate professor of cell and molecular biology at Uppsala University in Sweden

Staying up to date with the literature is perhaps the single most important skill that remains crucial throughout a researcher’s career. Without knowing where the current gaps are, your findings will either be old hat or too out in left field to be cited right away. But there certainly are challenges. One of them is that reading papers can feel like dead time, because it is such a slow and absorbing process, and there are so many papers out there to digest. Reading can also feel disheartening, as you will often find that other people have already published on what you thought was a really novel or original idea. And so it can all too easily happen that this important task of investing in your knowledge gets prioritized lower than all the other apparently more urgent duties that you have as a scientist.
- Denis Bauer, team leader in transformational bioinformatics at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Sydney, Australia

Our job is to push the frontier of what is already known, so we need to be aware of where this frontier is. However, trying to stay up to date with the literature is tremendously difficult. As an assistant professor, my job is to not only do research but also to teach, obtain funding, do professional service including peer review, give talks, attend committee meetings, and more. This constant multitasking makes it difficult to carve out time for keeping up with papers. Another challenge lies in the immense amount of new work that constantly gets published. The number of journals and venues is very large, and it continues to grow. This is further aggravated if you work in a field that is multidisciplinary, because then this number is multiplied, becoming barely manageable.
- Belen Masia, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Zaragoza in Spain

It is extremely important to find what you need in the scientific literature, but it’s difficult for anyone to block out the necessary time. For young scientists in particular, there is the additional challenge of trying to stay on top of newly published literature while still building up knowledge of their research areas.
- John Borghi, former librarian and postdoctoral fellow at the California Digital Library in Oakland, California

Keeping up is essential, no doubt about it. To be able to provide novel results, you have to know what has been done before you. Plus, you want to benefit from all the ideas, data, and interpretations that have accumulated in the literature right up to that point. But it’s certainly hard to keep up. Thousands of papers are published daily. Another challenge for me is that my research is multi-faceted, so I need to read in my broader field, which covers a lot of ground.
- Juan Jose Negro, senior staff scientist in evolutionary ecology and conservation biology at the Doñana Biological Station in Seville, Spain

Our function as scientists is to push the envelope and create new knowledge and understanding, so we always need to be as up to date as we can be in our areas. But keeping up with the literature is potentially an overwhelmingly large task, and there are no deadlines attached to it. And so, among all the other things that I have responsibilities for, it often feels hard to prioritize.
- Jehannine C. Austin, associate professor of psychiatry and medical genetics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada

To make a contribution to scientific research and effectively teach my students, I need to be very familiar with the current state of knowledge and with what ideas and methods are being used at the frontier of my field. But I find that keeping up with the literature always comes with a trade-off: Do I spend more time on my research projects, or do I read the latest papers?
- Ina Ganguli, assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst

How do you find new papers you ought to read, and the time to read them? 

To keep on top of my specialty area, I carry out regular, systematic literature searches using a tool called PubCrawler. PubCrawler automatically searches online publication databases using key search terms that I set up, and it sends me a weekly email highlighting all the new and potentially relevant papers, with a link to the abstract or full text. I find out about other recently published papers I ought to read from email alerts I get from the key journals in my area. I also become aware of new publications through colleagues who email me, and from social media. Twitter is an underutilized resource in science, but it’s great—if you follow the right people—for keeping your finger on the pulse of new work that is coming out.

Regarding finding the time, unless I am actively writing a grant or paper, it is harder for me to keep up with the literature, because it’s not an urgent, immediate, deadline-driven need. So I have a set time once a week, on Mondays, to look at the output of my literature searching tools. I sift through it all and then at least skim the papers that I find most relevant. I read journals’ tables of contents when I get them, usually also immediately downloading and at least skimming the papers that I find of most interest. Thorough reading of the full papers may be more sporadic.
- Austin

The tools I use to keep track of new literature are Feedly, which allows me to subscribe to the RSS feeds of relevant journals; a string of PubMed updates, which capture any relevant literature published outside those journals; and Twitter, which helps me identify what literature the broader scientific community is talking about.

I like spending a few minutes every morning skimming recent publications for articles that are especially interesting or relevant to my work. Coupled with a regular block every Friday devoted to more critical reading and lots of note taking, this generally allows me to stay up to date. Whatever routine you decide to set for yourself, I think the key is to find a way to interact with the literature regularly.
- Borghi

I continuously monitor the growing literature using the updates feature in Google Scholar, which recommends a selection of new papers to read based on your own publications. Monitoring the handful of main conferences in my field throughout the year, plus a couple of other relevant venues, also does a good job. Many conferences eventually publish their proceedings, and so whenever the lists of accepted papers get published, I also go through them as soon as I can and look at the papers that seem the most relevant to me. Sometimes, reading the abstract suffices. Other times, if it is closely related to my research, I print it for when I find time to go over it in more detail. Also, I make a point to regularly look at what leading researchers in my field publish and to talk to my peers.
- Masia

To know when relevant papers are published, I rely on alerts that the journals automatically send to highlight new publications that cite papers I found of interest previously. There is also substantial activity on social media, with journals promoting and researchers discussing new articles. Reddit Science'sAsk Me Anything, or AMA, forum discussions are a great way to hear about innovative research and talk to the authors directly. Recommender systems such as PubChase can also be great tools to hear about new papers early. However, most recommender systems find papers based on how similar they are to papers you previously read, which inevitably limits your exposure to tangential ideas that may be important to your research. I therefore like going through the tables of contents of my favorite journals.

In terms of how I find time for dealing with the literature, I usually go through email alerts as I get them to quickly become aware of the most important new publications. I also find that tweeting or blogging about one paper a week, or a day, is a good incentive for reading in depth. Twitter is particularly good, as it forces me to condense the paper’s relevant outcomes down to 140 characters, which then promptly triggers my memory as I go through my Twitter feed. Other advantages of Twitter are that it helps me find researchers with similar interests and helps me build a brand.
- Bauer

One way I keep track of new papers being published is by subscribing to emails that include the tables of contents of the top or most widely read journals in my field. In economics there is usually a long publication lag, so I also have to be aware of working papers getting published and new publications being presented at conferences and in seminars. Attending events and talking to others are very important ways to find out about the latest papers. I also follow some blogs written by economists and several economists on Twitter who tend to write about new papers.

To deal with the time pressure, I try to be efficient in how I scan the literature. I find it very useful to at least read through the titles and abstracts of the latest papers published in the journals, and then I decide carefully which papers I should read extensively. 

- Ganguli

To keep up with new papers being published, I use a combination of RSS feeds from journals in my field, Google Scholar Updates, the reference manager Papers, and recommendations from senior scientists on Faculty of 1000 or directly from colleagues. Twitter is also becoming increasingly valuable as a tool for spreading exciting research, and I strongly recommend getting networked through social media. The volume of literature out there makes keeping track a collective effort, and it's also good to have a venue for promoting your own work amid the sea of information.

But while I continuously scan what’s coming out, finding the time to read multiple papers in full is more difficult. And so, every few weeks, I try to download as many papers as I can—both newly published papers that are relevant to my work and older papers that I recently became aware of—and read them in chunks as the week progresses. Still, summer is best for reading—I have fewer teaching and administration obligations, so this is when I can really catch up with the literature.
- Kamerlin

How do you go about conducting more extensive background literature searches?

For general background reading in my field, I usually start by looking at new articles that have cited my work, as the likelihood that I am interested in what they have to write about is much higher. Similarly, I look at both recent and past citations to papers I found interesting to find further reading. For more targeted literature searches, Google—both Google Scholar and just the normal search bar—and PubMed are great. If I am moving into a new area, I usually contact colleagues, including people I know through conferences, and ask them if they have recommendation lists for me.
- Kamerlin

I find that, nowadays, searching for past literature is the easy part. Search engines and Google Scholar, together with other tools which allow users to follow citations, do a good job. If discipline-specific conferences or journals exist, I also go through the papers published in them, going at least 5 years back. What I find much more challenging is how to organize the works that I read and knowledge I acquire, and how to search back through them. I first set up a dedicated digital database using existing tools. Mendeley is a well-known example; I myself use JabRef. Then I archive hard copies of most of the papers I read, with the main contributions written on their front page. It is of no use going through a bunch of papers if you are unable to remember what you read in them.
- Masia

For historical searches, I usually start with PubMed, searching terms that make the most sense to me and expanding my scope of those search terms if I get limited results. Once I have a selection of key or index papers for a topic of interest, I pull the relevant papers cited within them. I also find out which papers later cited my index papers, for example by finding them on Google Scholar. Often, through this process, I am able to develop new search terms to use in PubMed, so I may then again start the whole process iteratively.
- Austin

When conducting literature searches, I like to simultaneously look backward and forward: If I find a paper that I think describes a topic particularly well, I look at both the papers it cites and the papers that cite it. Tools like PubMed and Web of Science each have their own strengths and weaknesses but, if I’m trying to gain insight into a topic described in a paper, I typically start by using Google Scholar to look at the papers that reference the one I’m reading.
- Borghi

For broader searches, I have been applying “Ten Simple Rules for Searching and Organizing the Scientific Literature” for several years now with good results, although the technologies have changed slightly over time. Today, I usually start from the article that made me interested in the topic (what I call the seed paper) and read the papers that are cited in the references. For this I use ReadCube, as it helps prioritize papers by the number of citations they have. Then I also try to find a review article on PubMed, which helps me identify other research groups in the field whose work might not have been referred to in the seed paper but is nonetheless important. Finally, I try searches for research articles in PubMed and Google Scholar with very precise keywords and choose new seed papers from there, starting the process all over again. Eventually, this helps me establish connections between different schools of thought.
- Bauer

Does the literature sometimes feel overwhelming? How do you prioritize what to read, and how do you reduce the chance of missing an important paper?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the flow of information. The decision to be made is one of sensitivity versus specificity. I tend to prioritize specificity (whether the papers I find are on target for me) and accept lower sensitivity (I’m not going to find everything that could potentially be relevant). I have drawn a line that makes sense for me based on the principle of diminishing returns. Of course, where exactly to draw this line is likely different for everyone.

Regarding how to make sure nothing crucial escapes my attention, I try to send links to papers that I find to colleagues and students whom I think might be interested in them, given what I know about their work. My hope is that, in turn, they will send things that they come across to me too, and then perhaps I will miss less. I also find that, when I am writing grants and papers and engaging in more thorough systematic literature reviews, I can catch up on things I may have missed.
- Austin

It is important to be exposed to ideas and approaches from other disciplines, but there can be an overwhelming amount of information if we try to read everything that gets published, and sometimes it is difficult to know where to draw the line. I prioritize the papers that are directly related to my own projects, especially when I am writing literature reviews for publications or grant proposals. I also prioritize reading papers from the top journals in my main research areas to keep on top of which topics and methods are at the frontier of knowledge. And then if I have some spare time, I also try to read papers that are a little bit further from my main research topics. 

There are certainly some times when you have that “I can’t believe I missed this paper” moment. But usually, if the papers are important enough, you will eventually find out about them through conference presentations, conversations with colleagues, Twitter, blogs, magazines, or other channels. You just hope you don’t have that moment when reading a report from a referee who isn’t happy that you missed an important citation!
- Ganguli

The number of papers out there makes it impossible not to miss important papers, especially when you are working in multiple disciplines. So I prioritize my reading in terms of what is most immediately relevant to what I am working on, and then I fan out from there as time allows.
- Kamerlin

Trying to read too broadly, too deeply, or too quickly is a sure path to information overload. So don’t try to read it all at once! Scientists who are feeling overwhelmed by the flow of information should take a step back and think about what exactly they’re looking for in the literature—and then prioritize the papers directly related to that question. It also helps to realize that, ultimately, a single scientist can’t read everything. A group of scientists navigating different branches of the literature can however cover a lot of ground. Personally, I’ve benefited greatly from collaborators and friends working in fields adjacent to my own pointing me toward things they’ve come across.
- Borghi

Are there any potential pitfalls that you’d like to highlight for young scientists? Do you have any further advice?

Young scientists sometimes tend to neglect the literature. They look at a number of related papers when they start working on their project, but then they fail to keep looking for more papers as their research—and the work of other researchers—progresses. They also rarely go back to the literature they’ve searched and read, even though it remains a great source of inspiration.
- Masia

Talk to librarians! Depending on their area of expertise, they may be able to give you specific advice about accessing important papers or navigating the scientific literature. Even if they don’t have specific subject area knowledge, librarians are an often-untapped source of knowledge about how scholarly information is organized, evaluated, and disseminated.
- Borghi

Remember that we walk on the shoulders of giants. Einstein would be a notable example, and Darwin’s work is still as relevant to evolutionary biologists today as it was in his day. In other words, don’t limit your literature searches to the 21st century.
- Negro

At the early stages of your research career, it's especially important that you take the time each day to get up to speed with the literature. I would recommend trying the different tools available and experimenting with your reading routine until you find what works for you. There are so many great options out there, and people have different tastes in terms of what they are comfortable with. Also, don't be afraid to ask your adviser for literature recommendations. Finally, it’s a good idea to set up a physical or virtual journal club to share papers and discuss ideas with your peers.
- Kamerlin

doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1600159

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