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Search Academic 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”).

Introduction

Reading scientific literature is a critical part of conceiving of and executing a successful advanced science project. The How to Read a Scientific Paper guide can help you get the most out of each paper you read—first, of course, you have to actually get your hands on the paper! That's where this guide comes in. Below you'll find tips and resources for both searching for and acquiring free copies of scientific papers to read.

Academic Search Engines: Resources for Finding Science Paper Citations

When you start your background research, one of the early steps is finding and reading the scientific literature related to your science project (see the Roadmap: How to Get Started On an Advanced Science Project article for more details on project steps). Mentors are a great resource for recommendations about which scientific papers are critical for you to read and you should definitely ask your mentor, or another expert in the field, for advice. But there'll also be times when your mentor is busy or isn't up-to-date on a particular experimental method, in which case, you'll need to be proactive and hunt for papers on your own. It turns out that just plugging search terms into a regular search engine, like Google, Yahoo, or MSN, isn't very effective. The pages you get back will be a wide mixture of websites, and very few will be links to peer-reviewed scientific papers. To find scientific literature, the best thing to use is an academic search engine.

There are many different academic search engines. Some focus on a single discipline, while others have citations from multiple fields. There are a handful of free, publicly available academic search engines that can be accessed online; some of these are listed in Table 1, below. The remainder, like the ISI Web of Science, are subscription-based. Universities and colleges often subscribe to academic search engines. If you can't find what you need using a free search engine, you may be able to access these resources from computers in a university or college library. Consult the school's library webpage, or call the library directly, to find out to which academic search engines they subscribe to and whether or not you'd be allowed into the library to access them.

Table 1: This table provides a list of free, online academic search engines for various science disciplines.



Here are a few tips to help you get started with the academic search engines:

  • Each search engine works slightly differently, so it's worth taking the time to read any available help pages to figure out the best way to use each one.
  • When you're beginning your literature search, try several different key words, both alone and in combination. Then, as you view the results, you can narrow your focus and figure out which key words best describe the kinds of papers in which you are interested.
  • As you read the literature, go back and try additional searches using the jargon and terms you learn while reading.

Note: The results of academic search engines come in the form of an abstract, which you can read to determine if the paper is relevant to your science project, as well as a full citation (author, journal title, volume, page numbers, year, etc.) so that you can find a physical copy of the paper. Search engines do not necessarily contain the full text of the paper for you to read. A few, like PubMed, do provide links to free online versions of the paper, when one is available. Read on for help finding the full paper.

How to Get a Copy of a Scientific Paper

Once you've found the citation for a paper that is relevant to your advanced science project, the next step is actually getting a copy so that you can read it. As mentioned above, some search engines provide links to free online versions of the paper, if one exists. If the search engine doesn't, or if you got the citation somewhere else, like the bibliography of another science paper you were reading, there are several ways to find copies.

Searching for Newer Papers (published during Internet era)

  • Check the library of a local college or university. Academic institutions, like colleges and universities, often subscribe to many scientific journals. Some of these libraries are free to the public. Contact the library, or look at their website, to see if you may use their resources and if they subscribe to the journals in which you're interested. Often, the library's catalog of holdings is online and publicly searchable.
    1. Note: If you do go to a university or college library to photocopy or print journal articles, make sure to bring plenty of change with you, because they won't have any!
  • Look for a free online version. Try searching for the full title of the paper in a regular search engine like Google, Yahoo, or MSN. The paper may come up multiple times, and one of those might be a free, downloadable copy. So, if the first link isn't downloadable, try another.
  • Go directly to the online homepage of the journal in which the paper was published. Some scientific journals are "open-source," meaning that their content is always free online to the public. Others are free online (often after registering with the website) if the paper was published more than a year ago. The Directory of Open Access Journals is also a good place to check to see which journals are free in your field of interest. The website lists journals by subject, as well as by title.
  • Search directly for the homepage of the first or last author of the paper and see if he or she has a PDF of the paper on his or her website. If so, you can download it directly from there. Generally it is only worth looking up the first author (the one who contributed the most to the paper) or the last author (usually the professor in whose lab the work was done and who supervised the science project).
  • Look for the paper (using the title or authors) in a science database, like those listed below, in Table 2. These databases contain free, full-text versions of scientific papers, as well as other relevant information, like publicly accessible data sets.


Table 2: List of databases containing free, full-text scientific papers and data sets.



  • Purchase a copy. Depending on the science magazine publisher, you may also come across offers for purchasing a copy of the paper. This is an expensive option, particularly if you have multiple papers you'd like to read; try some of the other searching methods first

Searching for Older Papers (published pre-Internet era)

Even with all of the above searching methods, you may not be able to find a free copy of the paper online. This is particularly true for older science papers, which were published before online content became routine. In these cases, there are additional ways to get the paper at no or minimal cost.

  • Contact the author via email. As mentioned above, the first and last authors are your best bets. Briefly explain your situation and request a copy of the paper directly from him or her. If you do this, make sure to be polite and brief in your email.
  • Check the library of a local college or university. Academic institutions, like colleges and universities, often subscribe to many scientific journals. Some of these libraries are free to the public. Contact the library, or look at their website, to see if you may use their resources and if they subscribe to the journals in which you're interested. Often, the library's catalog of holdings is online and publicly searchable.
    1. Note: If you do go to a university or college library to photocopy or print journal articles, make sure to bring plenty of change with you, because they won't have any!
  • Contact your mentor and ask if he or she can help you acquire a copy of the paper. Use this as a last resort though, because you may find that your request falls pretty far down on a mentor's lengthy to-do list.

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