Searching the scientific literature#

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Half a million academic papers in chemistry are published each year and there is about 200 years of excellent scientific precedent for you to become aquainted with as well.[1] Where do we begin to take on such a daunting task?

A few tips to get you started#

A literature search is rarely a straight line pointing but a sprawling network of interconnected articles, books, people, and communities. Each with their own motivations, interests, vernacular, and empirical standards. The only way to learn how to effectively navigate these streets is to walk around, read, talk to your friends, and if you get lost ask an expert for directions.

1 | Develop a clear and focused research question or hypothesis.#

This is easy at the surface but almost always evolves as you read and learn quite a bit about your topic before the questions that need answering of the story you want to tell becomes apparent. Your first questions are usually not very good. Often it is too vague or general to respond to clearly or they’ve already been answered by someone else. So you revise the question to be more specific or you better defined the important limits of the communities understanding or a topic. Read some more and repeat.

2 | Use tools to aid your search for the best sources#

There is no single tool for searching the literature and preferences are different for everyone. Google scholar is a great resource. It’s fast and easy to access for free. However, if you’re just getting into a field you can be overwhelmed by the overly specific results populate the top hits. Google Scholar’s top hits are based on relevance you the keywords you typed into the search bar. If you’re just getting started then what you’re probably looking for are books, review articles, and perspectives that give a broader overview of the field. Filter your google searches to include only these results. For review articles specifically Google Scholar has a button on the left side of the screen that attempts to filter only for review articles. However this will often miss reviews in journals that are not specifically labeled as such and will also miss books and prespectives.

An alternative option is to just read through the results and keep an eye out for key articles. There are usually context clues indicating which are books and reviews. Google Scholar also attempt to quantify how many other publications have cited a given article. Citations are a rough metric of influence and academia and articles with many citations have clearly already been read by many other people. This is usually a good place to start. Beware, articles with the most citations are not always the best or most accurate, or “most important”. Overtime you’ll learn to evaluate quality by reading the articles themselves. Obviously, new publications have no citations and yet over time they may become the most important. This may happen rapidly in a fast moving fields or take decades to gain the recognition they deserve.

Web of Science is another great search tool with better curated and more complete information than Google Scholar can provide. There are only half a dozen major publishers of journal articles in chemistry: AAAS, Springer, Cell, American Chemical Society, Royal Society of Chemistry, Wiley, and Elsevier. If you’re looking for good peer reviewed journal articles to help introduce you to a field it will likely be from one of these publishers and usually in one of their more prominent journals. Some of the most interesting topics may only have a few people publishing in which case you may need to consider more specialized journals centered around a small but active community. These can also be quite good.

Beware of papermills. These are journals that publish just about anything for a fee or collude with authors to publish and self-cite their own work. These are not reputable sources and should be avoided. Remember the articles and journals of science ware edited and written by real people whose reputations can be easily checked with a few simple web searches. When in doubt, look up the authors and the journal editors to learn more about whose work your reading.

3 | Track down a high quality book or review article early#

You may not need to read the whole thing. Often if you’re just getting into a field the introduction will provide more than enough detail for your current understanding of the field. You can return and read the more specific sections as you’re experience with the topic grows. In more technical books the first chapter or two will ofter cover basic fundamentals before diving into the more specific (and perhaps less relevant) details in later chapters.

4 | Use keywords and filters to refine search results.#

Once you have some familiarity with the research area and know where to look you should know what keywords are worth searching for. Refine your search engine results further with more relevant, accurate, and precise keywords.

5 | Keep track of your sources and take notes.#

Keep a list of all you citations in a place where you can add notes or take screen shots of key passages and figures. There are many way’s to do this. You can simply print out the articles and keep a paper notebook of your thoughts on each paper, or you can use a notes app to keep citations + personal notes + screenshots. Or you can keep a folder of pdf documents along with a text file or word document that contains all your notes. They choice is yours. It doesn’t really matter how keep notes. Just pick a method and be consistent.