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Introduction to Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Finding Articles

Research and library resources for students taking ESL/Wr 107, Wr 109 and SEC 111 at Caltech.

Using Google More Effectively

Is there anything that Google can't find? Actually, yes there is.

As a start for searching, Google (and Google Scholar) are pretty great. However, I'm sure you've had the experience of looking for something on Google, only to find a ton of irrelevant things, or not exactly what you are looking for. Google suffers from two basic problems:

  1. It is web-based, and thus won't index anything that isn't web-accessible (i.e. anything in print).
  2. It is based (to a large extent) on popularity - search results aren't based necessarily on content relevancy, but rather on how many other pages link to them, or how many other people have clicked on a link after doing the same search.

There are ways to make Google a little smarter, and they will be discussed in another part of this guide. There are also specific library databases that can help you find relevant articles for your assignments. These databases are a little better than Google in that they are more narrow in scope than Google (for example, searching for "plasma" in a Biology-oriented database is more likely to give results having to do with the blood component rather than the state of matter). They also utilize something called controlled vocabulary which will be discussed in the next section. Finally, using Google (and Google Scholar to an extent) will search all types of web sources, not just scholarly ones. It's important to know how to evaluate what you're looking at, and resources in this course will help you to do just that.

Boolean Searching

  • AND: Forces your search results to include all terms connected by AND
  • OR: Search results will include any of the terms connected by OR (but not necessarily all)
  • NOT: Search results will include the first term but not the term following NOT
  • Quotes: Forces search results to include the exact wording between quotation marks


You probably know that there are certain preferred words used to describe different things, usually under different circumstances or in different systems. One example of this would be social media connections. What do you call a connection on Facebook? On Twitter or Instagram? How about on LinkedIn?

This is true of both scientific disciplines and databases. For example, take the word plasma. If you asked a physicist to define it, you'd probably get something different from what a biologist or doctor would say - a state of matter versus a component of blood).

So, it's important to become familiar with the way concepts and techniques are described in your field of interest. The best way to do this is to read, read, and read some more! Pay attention to the way ideas and experiments are described in the literature. For example, in medicine, you've probably heard of the term "heart attack". Searching for that in the medical literature might get you some articles, but you'd soon discover that the preferred term in the medical community is "myocardial infarction". Similarly, in the chemical community, common names of chemicals (for example, polyacetylene) are being phased out in favor of IUPAC names (polyethyne), but if you want to find older articles as well as newer articles, you need to know both!

Here are a few sources to look out for that will help you learn preferred vocabulary:

1. If you are just getting started with background information, trusted encyclopedias or reference books often have categories or broad topics associated with concepts. These might be helpful in finding related and accurate words to use in your search strategies. Here's an example - scroll to the bottom of the page to view the Categories.

2. Scholarly articles sometimes (but not always) have a section in the full text labeled Keywords, usually near the Abstract - here's an example.

3. An excellent way to get an idea of preferred wording is to use a specialized subject database. Some recommended ones for this class are on the Recommended Databases page. All these databases show you groupings of preferred vocabulary when you search, although they are called slightly different things in each one. There is more about that elsewhere in this guide.

It should be noted though that Google Scholar, as great as it can be, doesn't offer any help with discovering preferred terminology - it recommends reading secondary sources!

Types of Articles

Literature databases usually index several kinds of scholarly writing. It's important to be familiar with them so that you choose the correct type of article for your assignments. Different databases may call them different things; more about that elsewhere in this guide.

  • Original Research Article
    This is the standard peer-reviewed "journal article" that reports on an actual experiment performed, and presents the results of those experiments. These articles generally contain the following clearly-defined sections: Background/Introduction, Experimental/Methods, Results/Discussion, Conclusion. If what you are reading doesn't contain all of those sections, it probably isn't an Original Research Article.

  • Review Article
    Reviews present summaries and critiques of OTHER work that has been done on a topic, but it does NOT present original experimental results. It does not follow the format of an Original Research Article, and may or may not be peer-reviewed.

  • News/Opinion/Editorial Article
    These are popular in trade publications, such as Chemical & Engineering News, and also in scholarly journals such as Science and Nature. They are usually good as overviews of a particular research experiment, but don't give the full scope of the work, and are NOT peer-reviewed. Usually, the Original Research Article is referenced somewhere in the text.

  • Book or Book Chapter
    After ideas and experiments have been established in the open literature for a while, work may be collected and published in a book. Edited books usually contain several chapters dealing with different aspects of a topic. The editor of the book is usually a prominent researcher in the field, and invites other researchers to contribute chapters. Edited book chapters are more similar to Review Articles than Original Research Articles.

  • Thesis / Dissertation
    These are written in completion of a Master's or Doctorate degree. Sometimes, thesis chapters may appear in peer-reviewed journals as independent articles. They are not always easily available.

  • Patent
    Patents are legal documents that protect the intellectual property of the inventor. It gives the inventor the exclusive right to use their invention for a limited amount of time in exchange for making the idea publicly available (as a patent).

Is It Peer Reviewed?

In general, Original Research Articles are usually peer-reviewed. Some databases will let you narrow your search to only return peer-reviewed articles. If, however you are working in a database or search engine (like Google Scholar) that doesn't let you do this, there are a few things you can look for to determine if an article is peer-reviewed.

  1. What is the source of the article? Is it from a scholarly journal, or a newspaper or trade magazine?
  2. What type of item is it? In Web of Science, articles classified as Articles or Reviews are likely to be peer-reviewed. News, opinions or editorials are usually NOT peer-reviewed.
  3. Look at the full text of the article. If there are dates labeled "Submitted", "Revised", or "Accepted", the manuscript has been peer-reviewed.