This document offers general tips to aid your online search for peer-reviewed academic articles, and explains in detail how to use the database EBSCOhost. If you are a college student, your academic library website may already have a much more detailed, personalized guide.
To find the best academic sources for your paper…
- Close this web page.
- Walk, drive, skateboard, ride your unicorn, or otherwise physically go to your library.
- Talk to a reference librarian.
You’ll save yourself time and aggravation, and you will get better results.
Maybe your unicorn is tired, and you can’t get to a library just now. I can still try to help.
Google Will Not Show You What Your Instructor Wants You To Find
Google is a great search engine, but most people who are searching online aren’t planning to write term papers; therefore, the pages that Google thinks are great for the typical person doing a typical internet search (planning a trip, researching a hobby, etc.) are not going to help you do your (non-typical) homework assignment.
First of all, it costs nothing to use Google; but most academic journals don’t post their articles for free online, which means that Google will never find them. You’ll have to access a database that your library pays for.
Libraries buy subscriptions to databases which pay journals for the rights to index their articles. Most libraries let patrons access these databases through their websites.
- Fortunately, almost all libraries provide free online access to these databases.
- Unfortunately, these databases aren’t as easy to use as Google, and each one is different from the other.
General Academic Search Strategy
No matter what database you use, here is a general strategy you can follow to help you find good academic sources.
- Start at your library’s home page.
- Don’t go to the “catalog” — that’s mostly for accessing books and other records that are physically located at the library.
- Look for a link to “periodicals” or “databases”. (You may need to use the site search engine.)
- Select an appropriate database. (If your instructor hasn’t already explained the procedure, you might look for the database server EBSCOhost. and within that server, find the database Academic Search Elite.)
- Look for a checkbox that says “peer-reviewed” or “juried publications”. Check that box to restrict your search to credible publications.
- Try a single keyword search to see what comes up; or, if you have already used Google to find a recent newspaper or magazine article in which a reporter interviews a researcher, type in the researcher’s name to see what he or she has published recently.
- You may not find a whole article that has been written on your subject.
Finding Articles within a Database
My students are sometimes frustrated by the lack of articles on cutting edge subjects that interest them. Academic studies often take months or years to write and publish — so it may be a while before researchers publish articles on Operation Iraqi Freedom or the spread of Sars.
If you can’t find academic articles on how the latest social media app affects teen romance, or how last month’s big political story will affect the subject you want to write about, you might need to go back in time and look for historical similarities, such as how telephones affected teen romance in the 50s and 60s, or how the context for the impeachments of Presidents Nixon and Clinton relates to America’s current president.
- If you get too many hits, try adding additional, more specific terms. (If you get 5000 hits for “transportation safety”, try “automobile safety” or “alcohol automobile” or “seat belts”).
- If you get too few tips, try using synonyms; or, try using more general terms. (For instance, if you find nothing under “car safety”, try “automibile safety”. If you find nothing under when you type in the name of the latest file-sharing service, try “file sharing” or “music copyright” or “copyright law” or just “copyright”.) When you do find some good sources, try new searches using the subject headings under which that article is filed.
- Any database will have a “help” button that describes how to use operators like OR and NOT, how to restrict your search to a particular language or date range, etc. If your instructor wants you to use a source published within a specific date range, look for a “help” or “advanced search” link.
Warning: Even if you do click the box to restrict searches to credible publications, the database may return an editorial or a letter to the editor that was published in an academic publication. If the article is very short (one or two pages long) and does not include a works cited list or bibliography at the end, then you haven’t found a peer-reviewed academic source.
by Dennis G. Jerz
28 Dec 1999 — first posted
12 Mar 2002 — modified
01 May 2003 — general tips section added
24 Mar 2011 — touched up and generalized
05 Jan 2018 — removed an outdated reference to “instant messaging”