Both novice and seasoned researchers spend a lot of time reading scientific papers. The more they read, the more they learn and the better academics they become. To improve learning, it is very important that they give priority to quality articles that are relevant to their research. Simple as it may seem, finding good, relevant papers is not a simple task given the vast literature available.
For this process to be successful, it is necessary that you understand what being relevant for your research means. The usual way consists in identifying your research questions, as discussed in this article. In this piece, I’ll describe a method to navigate through the existing scientific literature and select relevant articles. Along the way, I’ll also introduce Academic Scout, a tool that makes your research easier.
The Art of Finding Papers
Assuming that you can judge what is relevant for your research, I’ll focus now on how effectively finding papers. You can use this method either if you are working on an advancement in your field, or reviewing the state-of-the-art in a specific niche, or if you are approaching a completely new domain. All you need is to set up two lists: one for the articles to check, and one for the articles to read. Initially your list of articles to read is likely empty (unless you are reprising a previous research topic) while you need one or more papers in your list of articles to check.
How to get started
If you just embarked in your first research project, or you decided to explore a new research area, your list or articles to check is likely empty. Finding the first paper to add might prove to be difficult. You may ask your supervisor or a colleague with more experience in the chosen field to suggest one. Another great way to get started is to search Wikipedia for a relevant subject and use the references at the bottom of the page.
The use of Wikipedia is typically stigmatised because some pages (especially the scientific ones) aren’t particularly articulate or accurate. However, Wikipedia is arguably the most revised encyclopedia in the world. Citing a Wikipedia page is still bad practice but the bibliography usually contains authoritative sources that are a good seed for your list of papers to check. Most of the times, it is safe to also add them to the papers to read.
Another great place to start or continue your research is, of course, a library. Any university library and most city libraries, like the British Library, for instance, provide services to search and retrieve papers for a reasonable price.
Most likely, they will give you access to a database of scientific publications. These databases provide the means to quickly skim through the scientific literature for potential matches to your research question. These databases are usually accessible online and often are interfaces that allow you to very conveniently search through several end-point repositories at once. Universities and research centres usually have their own system that you can freely use if you are an affiliated member.
Alternatively you can go online and use any search engine. There are engines that are specifically suited for research such as Google Scholar, CiteSeer, ArXiV or similar. You can also find search functionalities on the websites of the main publishing companies such as Springer, Elsevier, and PubMed, to name a few. However they often return results only among their own publications.
Searching with Boolean operators
You should be familiar with how to use search engines, searching just using keywords won’t get very far though. Instead, you’ll need to get used to using special operators to fine tune those engines and get the most of them. They might have slightly different interfaces, but they all offer similar functionalities.
Any term that you type will find you any document that contains those terms in any order. If a keyword consists of more words, you can surround them in “quotes” to instruct the search engine to only find documents containing all those words, in that specific order (exact match).
When your research involves more than one keyword, you might want to combine them using boolean operators.
- If you want papers containing either one keyword, or another one (or both) you can use the logical operator OR. Most search engines have this as the default behaviour (no special symbol is required), so search for as many keywords as you want to find all papers including any combination of them.
- If want to find papers including more than one keyword at the same time, combine these keywords with the logical operator AND. Most search engines use + (plus) as the symbol to combine keywords.
- If you want papers including one keyword bot not another, use the logical operator NOT. Most search engines use – (minus) as a symbol to exclude keywords.
For instance, if you want papers on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning but not Deep Learning, you should use the following search string: “Artificial Intelligence” + “Machine Learning” -“Deep Learning”.
It is important to master the art of searching using keywords and boolean operators otherwise your searches might be skewed and you might miss a lot of valid papers.
Uncovering the best search parameters
What you would like to do initially is to broaden your search as much as possible. Search every keyword that you plan to use singularly and see how many results you get. When a search returns too few results, think of other synonyms for that keyword, or expand it if it is an acronym. Try every alternative keyword and keep the one that returns more results. If you still find very few results, think of other keywords to use that might lead to more hits.
When you are satisfied with the number of results you get out of each keyword, proceed to the second stage in which you try to narrow the results space as much as possible by using the boolean operators. The boolean operators, in fact, guarantee that all the results contain the right combination of keywords which makes them potentially relevant papers.
Keep adding keywords until the number of results is relatively small so you don’t have to check too many potentially relevant matches. The risk if there are too many is that you might give up after some time, missing good papers. Add all of the papers found in this way to a list of papers for you to check.
Exploring scientific production
Once your initial ‘to check’ list contains one or more papers, you can start checking every one of them against a database for scientific publications. If you don’t have them already listed by the search engine of your choice as results, you might want to search every single title in quotes to find the entry specific to that article.
The result page for a paper usually contains a lot of information. To begin with, the abstract is the most useful piece of information The abstract is a summary of the paper which explains how the authors have tried to answer their own research question. By reading it, you will understand if its content is relevant to your own research question. If it is, you might want to download the whole paper for further exploration.
If the search interface you’re using doesn’t allow to access the content or it is behind a paywall, you may want to try to type the title of the paper in quotes followed by + pdf in a search engine. Sometimes, in fact, the full paper is available somewhere else. There are tools like Academic Scout that actually scan the web for you to find any legal copy of the paper so that you don’t have to shift your focus away from your research.
If you haven’t been lucky, you might want to check the list of authors. It usually contains their emails that you can use to contact them. If so, write first to any author that is indicated as correspondence author and try others if you don’t receive any answers after a reasonable time. In your mail, explain why their work might be relevant for your research and ask politely if they can suggest other places where you could find their paper. Most of the times, the authors will be delighted to provide you a copy of their work for free, especially because you might want to cite them in your work. Tools like Academic Scout can find the email of the preferable author to contact and automatically sketch a message for you.
Skimming Through the Article
Now that you have the PDF of the article, skim through it: check the sections, the pictures and the tables to see if you find that information that you think is relevant to your research question. If so, add the file to your list of papers to read.
Before moving on to the next paper, check the bibliography. The bibliography is a selection of papers that the authors decided to use to back their research question. Since you have already decided that this article is relevant to your research, papers in the bibliography are likely also relevant. Add them to the list of articles to check.
Also check the authors’ list. It is very likely that the authors have published other works in the same domain that might also be relevant for your research. Almost any database allows you to click on a name to access that author’s literature. Add the papers you find this way to the list of articles to check.
Before leaving this page, also check the list of articles that are citing this paper. The same argument applies here: if some authors have included the paper you believe to be relevant for your research in their bibliography, their paper is likely also relevant and you should add it to the list of articles to check. Ideally repeat this process until you’ve exhausted the list of papers to check or you believe you have found enough articles to support your research question.
Notice that after you’ve repeated this process on a few articles, you’ll see that some authors and some journals will appear more frequently than others. These authors are likely the most influential authors in this research domain and you might want to approach them to ask for suggestions or even collaborations. The journals, instead, are likely the most respected publications by this research community where you should try to get your papers published. Academic Scout can keep track of the most influential authors and most respected journals for you, also finding their h-index and impact factor for you!
Before proceeding immediately to reading the selected articles, you might want first to order them for importance and make the most out of your time. In this other post we suggest 5 simple criteria to properly organise your personal library of scientific papers to use when writing papers.
Finding relevant papers for your own research is one of the most important activities that researchers have to master to be successful. In this article I have introduced a method that will systematically help you find the information that you need to take informed decisions for your research. I also have presented Academic Scout, a tool for research that makes every step more efficient.