This webpage is designed as a quick guide to get you thinking about the range of information resources available and ways of improving your information-seeking skills.
If you would like more guidance on any of these issues, or on research tools and techniques which are specific to your discipline, please contact your Research Information Service librarian.
You can also view a printable version of this page.
Working through an information search on your topic or some
aspect of your research with your Research Information Service librarian is an effective way to
build knowledge that will become intuitive, especially if you have a task about
which you are unsure, or for which you have had unexpected results. Contact
your Research Information Service
For any of the points below your Research Information Service librarian can
provide further detail, clarification or problem-solving.
It is quite easy these days to find some information on most
topics, 'Just Google it!'. (In fact, for science, it makes more sense to use science specific search engines rather than Google - see Searching the Internet below.)
However some databases are designed to provide systematic
answers about research across particular fields, as reflected in published
science. You will have used some, but perhaps the distinctions between tools
are not clear to you.
When you are preparing work that requires a comprehensive
grasp of research on a specific topic, say, a literature review, an answer from Google, or from electronic journals sites, may be
incomplete. Moreover, if your topic is conceptually complex and the relevant terminology is not simple, limited, and straightforward, you may find the limited functionality of Google Scholar, Scirus etc makes time-efficient searching very difficult. You may end up with an experience typical of much Google searching - repeated adding or removing of keywords and time-consuming browsing.
Go to the Subject Guides in your field and click on the Journal Articles tab. Generally, these are what are sometimes called 'bibliographic' databases (also sometimes 'article', 'journal', 'indexing', 'abstracting' databases, or just 'indexes' or 'abstracts').This type of database will index all journals in a defined field
and will index selected articles from other journals. Trained indexers who are
also scientists are employed to scan this literature (and sometimes web
publications and papers in books and conference proceedings). For most
databases they will enrich the description of articles using subject terms (descriptors)
and sometimes codes (see Controlled Vocabulary).
Some of these databases share a platform, for example Web
of Knowledge or Proquest, with shared search, browse, mark, download and full text linking
features, though the databases themselves may still differ (e.g. descriptors
will usually differ). Depending on your topic you may use several key databases
on different platforms.
Some databases cover the older literature to the early 20th century, or, in the case of Zoological Record, back to 1864. There are print indexes that go back further. Some full text databases, especially JSTOR, go back to the 19th century for some of the journals they cover.
Some databases will index books and proceedings. You may
want to see only journal articles. Since indexers will label articles by
publication type it is usually easy to refine your search to show only
articles, or in some databases even peer-reviewed
articles only. You can often use the same feature to limit results to
Unlike library catalogues, search engines and most
electronic journal sites, indexing databases keep each search you do in a given
search session. You can combine searches and recombine in different
permutations using 'Search History','History', or "Recent searches' options. This is a much more
flexible base for refining searches than using multi-window search boxes or, in
single windows, creating complicated 'nested' searches using parentheses. 'History' is not an option in search engines like Google Scholar.
Begin by splitting your search question into separate concepts. Search one
concept at a time (combining synonymous terms with OR).
To search databases effectively, it is important to
understand the concept of controlled
vocabulary. Many databases use standardised topical or technical terms (descriptors
or subject headings).
Unless you specifically select a field to search, such as
article title, author etc, when you search a database you are searching the
descriptors as well as article titles and abstracts. You will thereby
inadvertently benefit from the additional indexing. For example, if the
indexers associate a common name with a taxonomic descriptor you will get all
records even if you do not know or have not used appropriate scientific names.
The same applies with chemicals, genes, parts, structures and so on.
Nevertheless if you are not yet very familiar with the
terminology for your topic the keywords you use may be too limited to get good
results, even with the indexers' hidden help.
You may need reference help (see Reference tools) or standard works to improve your keywords or you
may need to find and use the database descriptors yourself. One easy way of
doing so is to do a very specific search aimed to get highly relevant (but
perhaps very few) results and then look carefully at how the best of these have
been indexed. Restricting your search, or part of it, to a Title field search
often helps. Then you can usually just click useful descriptors in the best
records to initiate a search on that term, or copy and paste them into a search
box. You can then combine this result with other sets in your Search History
You can also look at the full list of descriptors yourself
to choose terms - look for a Thesaurus
of descriptors (in Pubmed look for MESH), or for a search icon e.g. in Web of
Knowledge databases look for Select from Index to the right of search windows.
There are now very large databases which provide the full
text of millions of journal articles and books. Some are produced by major
journal publishers, such as ScienceDirect,
Online, Wiley/Blackwell, Oxford Journals, Cambridge Journals. Some are produced by commercial aggregators
using the product from different commercial publishers. Some, such as JSTOR and BioOne,
are non-profit and include journals from scientific societies.
Many of these full-text resources are also indexed in Scirus
and Google Scholar.
Because you are searching whole articles you need to make your
searches as specific as possible. Use technical terms specific to your topic,
or lots of keywords combined with AND, or specify bound phrases (see Database
Searching How-to Guide), or search in specific fields only (Title or Author
Referencing software can increasingly handle full text - see
Storing and managing your search results
Another way of improving your results is to search by cited references. The principle is
simple: if there is an article which is fundamental to your research topic, it
may be helpful to find later publications which cite that article. Citation
searching is becoming widely available on electronic journal platforms and many other sites. In this form you will see "Cited n" or "Cited by n" where 'n' is the number of other articles citing that article at that moment on that site. The original
citation searcher, via the Cited Reference Search tab in the Web
of science databases, is still the best way to carry out a methodical
citation search. Note also that the other databases on the Web
of Knowledge platform allow linking through to citations in the Web of Science. The Scopus database also allows a similar cited reference search. In Scopus however, you begin with an author search and then use the 'View citation overview' option. See the How-To Guide on Cited Reference Searching. For a broad discussion of citation counts see our Research Output and Input guide - click the Citation Counts tab. The tracking of citations to a paper is a sub-set of wide-ranging metrics which provide quite specific information on research, researchers, and research institutions. For a full guide to those options see our Research Output and Impact web page.
There is much technical information that is published only
in Patents and it is suggested that many literature searches are incomplete without
considering published patents from many countries.The most comprehensive patent database is Derwent
Innovations Index.This database
brings together the patents published in 41 countries. It succinctly summarizes in English the most
important information in the patent and usually links to the full text of the
patent. Derwent Innovations Index is
linked to the Derwent Chemistry resource which allows chemical searching
including chemical structure searching.
A large proportion of chemical research is proprietary and published only in patents.
In theory you may not need basic reference given the
advanced stage of your studies. However science has changed, with ever narrower
specialisation and, partly because of this, much more cross-disciplinary and
team based work. As a result from time to time you will need basic knowledge of
some field that relates to, but is not central to, your work. You are not dependant on print reference alone. For both print and online
reference, have a look under the Getting Started tab in a Subject Guide for your field. See also Quick reference on the library front page.
If you are having a problem accessing an electronic library
resource (database, journal article, e-book etc) - look at its Catalogue record. Most importantly, if it is a journal, first check the years
available. The volume you want may only be available from one e-link and not any link in the Catalogue record, or that volume may only be available in print. Make sure that it is not only available from certain computers, has a
maximum number of users, or can only be used within the library or UQ network. Look at the annotations or at Access Info. Access from
home can be less reliable than access on campus. Try on campus or from a
library computer or even try a computer in the office next door. Try searching with a different browser - Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. The problems can be quite complex so you may need to contact your Research Information Service librarian for help.
In many databases you will see Full Text buttons or links.
These will take you straight to a particular article. Sometimes these may not
work from home. In addition on many sites you will see a 'Get it at UQ' link. Sometimes
(perhaps from home) this may work when a full text link does not. However Get it at UQ
will never be much better than about 80% effective. For 100% effectiveness you
can still rely on looking up a journal in the Catalogue. Many databases provide
you with a 'Holdings' or 'Your Library' check with each record in your search
results which makes this very easy.
Help is available.
The most time efficient way of using the Internet is often
to find a relevant site and search or browse it. So 'Just Google it!' is not
always the best approach to the Internet. Look under the Web Sites tab (or other tabs, e.g. Specialised Resources) of Subject Guides relevant to your
In addition there are special search engines focussing on
scientific information such as Scirus, Google Scholar, and WorldWideScience. You should set up your 'Preferences' in resources like these so that you can access subscription-only resources more
A search of a 'bibliographic database' (see Different tools for different purposes)
will not be complete if only because it may be some weeks behind actual
publication of new articles. When you allow as well the time gap between
completion of experiments or field studies, writing up, submission, and final
publication, a database might be up to a year behind any given piece of
scientific work. This is no longer an insuperable problem.
Open Access, Citation searching and Networking work well for 'breaking' news. So do conference papers. Conference and meeting abstracts and papers
appear in some databases and there are some specialist tools (e.g. Conference
proceedings citation index: Science). However conference material is
usually easy to find on the web.
There are also specific 'alerting' tools. You can store a search on most database platforms (e.g. Web of
Knowledge, Proquest, Ovid, Pubmed) and programme the database to run it again at
intervals. The results are emailed to you.
You can also set up alerts from many journal websites (to
receive contents lists of new issues) and publisher websites (to receive notification
of new books in nominated subject areas).
Inevitably you will identify articles and books that you
need which are not available in the UQ Library. Our document
delivery service will obtain these for you. For theses and books you should
consider simply contacting your Research Information Service librarian to get the item bought for
the library collection.
In science what is really going on may not be reflected in
any published form. Especially with regard to formative
thinking, tentative or inconclusive experiments, and so on, things are as they ever were - personal contact is the key.
The contemporary internet and communications, especially the
social and interactive web ('Web 2.0') and mobile technologies, and formal web
based teaching tools like Blackboard, can enable students to rapidly establish
contact networks (even if transitory) that in the past would have taken
established researchers years to acquire. It still remains that older methods
such as email, phone and face-to-face meetings remain the core of networking.
Beginning researchers may wish to accelerate this process.
Discovery tools are built into some databases (see Analyse). The Open Access world also contributes. There are now science-specific social and
interactive web tools. For example see myExperiment,
ResearcherID, Innocentive or ResearchGate. There are various ways to find researchers or institutions you may wish to network with. There are metrics which track research impact and influence. See our Research Output and Impact web page. (See the ERA tab there for explanations and links on the federal government's Excellence in Research for Australia process.) There are various ways of ranking scientists, publications and universities. See for example Essential Science Indicators, Journal Citation Reports, and Incites.
The world of open access is a
response to rising journal prices which force libraries to cancel
subscriptions. There are new peer reviewed journals that have no copyright
restrictions. Some of these journals are very highly cited. As a result some
commercial publishers are loosening their copyright restrictions. These
journals are catalogued by the library and there are lists of open access journals.
Open access also involves the placement of scientific data
and publications on the web, usually through a university site. The library
established UQ eSpace as the institutional repository for UQ. You can
search there for UQ research and you can place your work there. There are also lists of open access repositories.
Open access is a good source of the most recent science. The
open access world is searchable - see OIAster and Trove (previously ARROW, then Australian Research Online - ARO) at UQ eSpace. Open
access material is also harvested by engines like Scirus and Google
Some databases, e.g. Web of Science, allow you to analyse
the results after your search.You can find out who is the most prolific author in your research field. The author's email address is usually
included in the database record.You can
find out which institution is publishing the most papers on the topic and the
peak years of their output. You can sort by times-cited to see which papers are cited the most and therefore note
which papers and authors have been most influential in the research area.
When you have identified useful references, how will you
store and organise them?
The library has a site licence for EndNote, a
software package that allows you to create a personal database of references.
It includes facilities to store electronic copies of your references and to
store your working notes on the references. EndNote works with Microsoft Word
to insert references in articles, your thesis or other publications, and from
these generate bibliographies. It is very easy to format your document in
whatever generic or journal publisher style you require. Endnote also enables
you to store full text and find full text. With version 16 of Endnote the Endnote/Endnote Web relationship has become very good. This is one of a number of possible ways of collaborating with co-authors.
Effective information gathering is not solely a matter of a
set of specific skills. It is about a reflective approach revolving around
assessing the quality of information. Sometimes you begin with clarity about
the information you want. Then you can plan. Sometimes you are being more
explorative. The process becomes intuitive, but you cannot build a useful
intuitive base without a reflective approach. Initial planning as appropriate,
and, in action, assessment of the information obtained, the reliability of
sources, the searching techniques used, the active refining of searches,
recognising a key item and knowing how to spin out from that to related
material; all these build that intuitive base.
Accurate expectations about the role of different
information tools, and skills in using them, support the process. If your
searching is either like wading through a mass of peripheral material or like
looking for a needle in a haystack, you probably need to develop your
abilities. Your Research Information Service librarian can help.
You should consider talking to your Research Information Service librarian about
what resources will and will not be available to you when you leave UQ. There
are some free databases and journals. Some information is available here.