How to do research on the internet – Google Scholar and other databases

So, you’ve got a lovely juicy essay/paper or research project to write, and instead of spending hours going through card catalogs in the library you obviously want to get your research done in the fastest way possible – on the internet. Here are my best tips for finding material for a paper or essay using online databases. In a nutshell – there’s more to finding information on the web than just typing some keywords into Google and using what pops out on the first page of results.

As a general rule, you should familiarise yourself with what databases are available to you – some are totally open-access, while others require some kind of subscription. Most universities and colleges subscribe to a lot of them, and you can usually find links to available databases on your college’s library website.

The way I usually start is with a couple of really general search terms on Google Scholar. You could start off searching on Google’s regular web search page, but all you generally get there is the wikipedia page, and you wouldn’t be stupid enough to reference wikipedia in an essay, would you? Of course not. Say your essay is on working memory – so stick “working memory +review” (without the quotes) into google scholar. This gets you about 2.2 million hits! Change the middle drop-down box at the top to restrict your search to the last, say, five years and then you have less than half a million references to go through – easy. Of course you don’t have to look through half a million papers – the great thing about Google Scholar is that it ranks things in order of ‘influence’ – which roughly translates as the number of times that paper has been cited by other papers. While there’s lots of arguments about exactly what this means in terms of a paper’s genuine influence, influential papers tend to get more cited than others, so it’s a reasonable metric. Hopefully you’ve got a couple of good review papers there on the first couple of pages that will get you into the topic. The other really great thing about Google Scholar is that it links directly to PDFs of the papers (when they’re available on the net) which enables you to directly download the papers with a single (right-)click. Of course if you use reference management like Mendeley (and if you don’t, you’re an idiot)  you can also import references from Google Scholar directly into your library. Here’s a nice page which talks about some advanced tips and tricks for getting the most out of Google Scholar.

The other, and much lesser-known, option is a suite of academic search tools from Microsoft. Curiously, these don’t seem to have much relationship with Microsoft’s Bing search engine – maybe they’ll be integrated into Bing at some later point?  In any case, there are a number of interesting features here which make it a good alternative to Google Scholar – in particular, it appears to be much more specific in that it only indexes journal articles – a search for ‘working memory’ produces only 7612 results. As you can see in the screenshot below, it also provides some nice graphics, and some handy links in the left bar to refine your search by particular authors, journals or keywords.

Screen-grab from Microsoft's academic research search engine.

The other tools on the Microsoft academic site are really well-implemented and a lot of fun as well, particularly if you’re a published researcher. You can use the co-author graph and citation graph tools to generate beautiful visual representations of who’s citing your work, or who you’re connected to through authorship – the most obvious application is simply to work out your Erdős number of course. Mine’s three (yay!) – although my Bacon number is still non-finite (boo!).

So, these search engines will hopefully let you find two or three good review papers on a topic, and you could probably write a half-decent essay using those and by looking up a few original sources that the reviews cite. However, you don’t want to just do a half-decent essay, do you? Of course you don’t. You want to include some real up-to-the minute, cutting-edge material which maybe your lecturer doesn’t even know about yet – that’s how you get the top scores, ladies and gentlemen. Where can you find such mind-blowing, first-class material?

Your best option are the more specific, more academic databases. The ones I use most are Pubmed, Web of Knowledge and Scopus. Pubmed is published and maintained by the US National Institute of Health, and is open-access, the other two are run by private publishing companies, so they restrict access, although your university probably has a subscription. They all have different strengths and weaknesses – Pubmed is (unsurprisingly) more medically-focussed and doesn’t index a lot of the journals on the more social/organisational/fluffy end of psychology; it’s great for all the neuro-related stuff though. WoK has several databases you can choose from and Scopus also seems pretty comprehensive in terms of what it represents from different research fields.

For psychology though, by far the most comprehensive database is PsycInfo, published by the American Psychiatric Association. The great thing about PsycInfo is that it only focusses on psychology, and it also indexes book chapters as well as journal articles. It’s also scarily historically complete, with records dating back to the end of the 19th century! A good tips-n-tricks page for PsycInfo is here.

My advice if you have a ‘serious’ literature review to do is to hit all of these databases with your keywords and see what pops up. There are a few good tips you can learn about how best to use all these databases and it’s worth poking around in their help sections to make sure you get the best out of them. The mighty indexing power and technology of Google and Microsoft hasn’t quite made the older, more specific, databases obsolete yet so it’s still well worth finding your way around them. Effective use of databases in research means you find better material, and more of it, and that will mean you’ll write a better essay – at the very least you’ll be better informed about the topic than if you’d just relied on the same old search tools (i.e. Google) that everyone else in your class used.


About Matt Wall

I do brains. BRAINZZZZ.

Posted on October 12, 2011, in Internet, Software, Study Skills and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Stavros Hadjisolomou

    Sending this to my students.

  2. Thanks! I am starting to do some research and these tips are helping me alot. Now I am more organized with all that mess that I used to have with my researches

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