Finding Scholarly Articles

Learning Objectives

  • Examine ways to find scholarly articles and books using library databases and catalogs

Finding Books

Scholarly articles are often found in journals, which compile several peer-reviewed articles on similar topics in the same place. You will often find these articles in online databases or in the periodicals section of your library, but it is still valuable to find pertinent information in actual, physical, books. Books cover virtually any topic, fact or fiction. For research purposes, you will probably be looking for books that synthesize all the information on one topic to support a particular argument or thesis. They will be especially beneficial if you want lots of information on a topic or want to put your topic in context with other important issues.

To find books, you should look in the library catalog, which is typically the main search bar located on the library homepage. The catalog includes books, reference books, media, maps, and titles of periodicals (like magazines, journals, and newspapers). Note that the catalog does not search for articles within periodicals and journals, and you’ll need to utilize a separate article search to find those.

Search result from a library search for a book. The result shows to look for four important things: what library the book is in, the location of the book within the library, the call number, and whether or not the book is available. These pieces of information are all listed in the search result.

Figure 1. Search result from a library catalog search.

You can locate the book by finding the call number. Call numbers are arranged in alphanumeric order. The call number is based on the book’s subject, author’s last name, and publication date. Call numbers are designated based on the library’s classification system, which determines how books are organized. Many academic libraries use the Library of Congress Classification, while others use the Dewey Decimal System.

Let’s say you are looking for the book called Cyberspace romance: the psychology of online relationships by Monica Whitty and Adrian Carr. You searched in the library catalog and found the call number: HQ 801.82 .W55 2006. Here’s what that means:

  • HQ: Subclass HQ refers to The Family, Marriage, Women
  • 801.82 refers to Man-Woman relationships, Courtship, Dating
  • W refers to the first author’s last name, “Whitty”
  • 2006 is the year the book was published

Finding Articles in Databases

So far you have learned how to locate a book you want on the library shelves. What if your project also requires scholarly articles?

To find scholarly articles, you need to look in a database. A research database lets you search across the text of millions of articles published in thousands of academic journals. General databases have a little bit of everything (like a big retail store). Examples of general databases include Google Scholar, the library articles search, or JSTOR. These are good starting points when you’re starting out and shopping around for articles on a wide range of topics, but you may find there are too many search results to sift through. If you’re getting too much irrelevant stuff, try a specialized database.

A specialized database—often called a research or library database—allows targeted searching on one or more specific subject areas (i.e., engineering, medicine, Latin American history, etc.), for a specific format (i.e., books, articles, conference proceedings, video, images), or for a specific date range during which the information was published. Most of what specialized databases contain can not be found by Google or Bing.

Watch It

This video explains what library databases are and why you should use them.

You can view the transcript for “What’s a Library Database?” here (opens in new window).

Your library will probably have an “article search” or “database search” link to begin your search. When you search article databases, your results list contains citations to a variety of information sources. Depending on the database, you might also find citations to book chapters or to books. Below is an excerpt of search results in PsycINFO. Note the different types of information sources that appear.

Search results from a database showing a dissertation, scholarly article, book, and book chapter, highlighting the variety of results you can find through a single database search.

Figure 2. This PsycInfo search resulted in a variety of information sources.

Everything you need to locate your article is in the citation: the title of the article, the author, the title of the journal, the volume and issue number, the date of publication, and page numbers.

Screen capture of a search result in a database, showing how easily identifiable the important components of an article are. The title of the article, author, title of the journal, volume and issue number, dat of publication, and page numbers are all listed together.

Figure 3. The important components of an article are all found within the citation.

You can typically click on the links below the citation to view the text of the article, or your library may direct you to the location of the article.

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Finding Sources from Sources

Every source contains rich clues to other useful sources. It’s a treasure map that can lead you to sources you would never find by pure searching. This skill can help you discern a conversation occurring among a set of scholars or writers about your topic. Think of each good source as giving clues along two axes:

  • Forward and backward in time. If you look at a source and see in its bibliography that there are fifty references, you can do a quick scan of the titles and authors to look for other sources you might investigate. These previously cited sources give you a rough map of how the topic has been researched to that point. Similarly, you can look at the “cited by” feature within a database (or Google Scholar) to look for other sources who are continuing the conversation and cited your source.
  • Side to side across the scholarly conversation. When looking at a source you like, collect key terms, phrases, and names to find other sources that are similar. These other keywords can lead to other types of evidence and examples that offer more coverage of your topic.
Intersection of an x- and y-axis showing how one source can be part of a larger conversation about sources. On the y-axis, pointing up, you could use "cited by" to find articles referencing yours. Pointing down you could find the citations, or a map of the topic to do date. On the x-axis, you find names, types of evidence, subject headings, method or approaches, and terms and phrases that continue the conversation.

Figure 4. Each source is part of a larger conversation on a subject. Looking closely at a source’s keywords, headings, methods, and terms can help find other sources on similar topics. A source’s citations also give clues into past and future research.

Using Keywords and Similar Subjects

If you’re reading a scholarly article in a library database, you can make use of both the keywords (selected by the author) and the subject-terms (usually determined by the database).

Screenshot of a database search result, showing the "subject terms" section, which is listed among the "authors", "source", "document type", "NAICS/Industry codes", "people", and "abstract" sections.

Figure 5. Look at the subject terms in your search results to find articles on similar topics.

If you’re reading a book, you have two options. First, using the book’s call number (generally found on the side or spine of the book), find the book in the stacks. Nearby books should be on a similar subject. You can also go back to the book’s record in the library catalog. Each book is assigned at least one library subject. Click the subject to find other books with the same subject.

A database search result for a book highlighting the "subjects" line under the "more information" section. Here you can find more books on a similar topic.

Figure 6. A database search result can take you to other books on the same subject.

Read the Bibliography

When you have finished the article, you can give the Works Cited page a once-over in order to identify any interesting readings that look useful.

Link to Learning

Check out this tutorial from Hunter College Libraries to learn how to read the information in a bibliography or works cited page (look in the left column of the screen for instructions).

Search by Author

Academic writers often write on the same topic and publish several books or articles about the topic. Put the author’s name into a database or Google Scholar search and see what else s/he has published about the topic. The authors may have even published an update to the current study you are reading.

Using Databases

Take a look at Marvin’s success in finding information within a specialized database.

O-Prof: Let’s go back to your initial Google search for a minute. Did any Wikipedia articles come up for bottled water?

Marvin: Yeah, and I took a quick look at one of them. But some of my professors say I shouldn’t use Wikipedia.

O-Prof: That’s because the quality of information in Wikipedia varies. It’s monitored by volunteer writers and editors rather than experts, so you should double-check information you find in Wikipedia with other sources. But Wikipedia articles are often good places to get background info and good places to connect with more reliable sources. Did anything in the Wikipedia article seem useful for finding sources on bottled water?

Marvin clicks back to the Wikipedia site.

Marvin: It does mention that the National Resources Defense Council and the Drinking Water Research Foundation have done some studies on the health effects of bottled water (“Bottled Water”).

O-Prof: So, you could go to the websites for these organizations to find out more about the studies. They might even have links to the full reports of these studies, as well as other resources on your topic. Who else might have something to say about the healthfulness of bottled and tap water?

Marvin: Maybe doctors and other health professionals? But I don’t know any I could ask.

O-Prof:  You can look in the library’s subject guides or ask the librarian about databases for health professionals. The Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) database is a good one. Are you logged in to the library? Can you try that one?

Marvin logs in, finds the database, and types in “bottled water AND health.”

Marvin: Here’s an article called “Health Risks and Benefits of Bottled Water.” It’s in the journal Primary Care Clinical Office Practice (Napier and Kodner).

O-Prof: If that’s a peer-reviewed journal, it might be a good source for your paper.

Marvin: Here’s another one: “Socio-Demographic Features and Fluoride Technologies Contributing to Higher Fluorosis Scores in Permanent Teeth of Canadian Children” (Maupome et al.). That one sounds pretty technical.

O-Prof: And pretty narrow, too. When you start using sources written by experts, you move beyond the huge porch of public discourse, where everyone talks about all questions on a general level, into some smaller conversational parlors, where groups of specialists talk about more narrow questions in greater depth. You generally find more detailed and trustworthy knowledge in these smaller parlors. But sometimes the conversation may be too narrow for your needs and difficult to understand because it’s experts talking to experts.

Way ahead of the professor, Marvin’s already started reading about the health risks and benefits of bottled water.

Marvin: Here’s something confusing. The summary of this article on risks and benefits of bottled water says tap water is fine if you’re in a location where there’s good water. Then it says that you should use bottled water if the purity of your water source is in question. So which is better, tap or bottled?

O-Prof: As you read more sources, you begin to realize there’s not always a simple answer to questions. As the CINAHL article points out, the answer depends on whether your tap water is pure enough to drink. Not everyone agrees on the answers, either. When you’re advising your future clients (or in this case, writing your paper), you’ll need to “listen” to what different people who talk about the healthfulness of bottled and tap water have to say. Then you’ll be equipped to make your own recommendation.

Things to Consider

One last tip for your research is to keep an open mind. If you are not finding good sources, don’t get discouraged. Try a different combination of keywords, synonyms, or ask your librarian or professor for help. Keep in mind that you don’t need a perfect source that aligns with your paper. You can take small bits of information from multiple sources and combine them into your own argument.

Watch It

This video reminds us that there is not one perfect source for your research, so you may need to use multiple strategies to find the information you need.

You can view the transcript for “One Perfect Source?” here (opens in new window).

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