If you want to be on the cutting edge of knowledge, then it’s nice to be able to draw directly from academic journals where researchers first report their discoveries. But it can be tough to know where to find academic journals and how to access them. There’s entire degrees you can get studying information literacy, but here I’ll provide a few shortcuts to get you going.
1. Log In to a Search Engine
Scholar Google and EBSCO’s Academic Search Premier are are helpful for broad, cross-disciplinary searches. There are also search engines for specific disciplines (e.g., PsychINFO for psychology), but I’ve found Scholar Google and EBSCO are usually sufficient.
I suggest getting a library membership, whether that’s at your university (alumni members are sometimes available) or at your public library. My New York Public Library membership gives me access to dozens of databases like EBSCO and free access to thousands of journals. You can link your library account to Scholar Google to easily access pdfs of search results.
2. Conduct Targeted Searches
Let’s pull up Scholar Google and enter the keyword “social skills”
You get around 1,640,000 results, which is far too broad to make efficient progress. Here is an overview of five steps you can think about progressing through to solve this problem with more detailed explanation of each of the steps below.
Review Articles. Target your search by using the keyword “review” in combination with your keyword.
Meta-Analyses. Then do another search by using the keyword “meta-analysis” in combination with your keyword. This should bring up articles from meta-analyses that provide statistical averages across multiple studies. For example, let’s say three studies investigate the same question, what percent of children struggle with social skill deficits? Let’s say Study 1 finds 10%, Study 2 finds 12%, and Study 3 finds 25%. It would be helpful to know that the average across all three studies was 15.7%.
Top-Tier Journals. Search your keyword by itself, but limit by specifying top tier journals. In the example below, I combined the search term “social skills” with “Psychological Bulletin”, one of the top meta-analysis journals in psychology. I would repeat this search multiple times until I have combined “social skills” with every top-tier journal in psychology.
Recent Articles. With steps 1-3, limit the search by clicking on “Custom range…” located in the left margin of Scholar Google. In this example I limited to “2007-2017”, then did a separate search for articles published “anytime”.
3. Target Top Tier Journals
What is a top tier journal? Through the library website you can find the Schimago Journal Rank which provides impact ratings for many journals. A higher impact rating implies that a journal is one approximation of journal quality and is the average number of times articles published in that journal are cited in other research articles during the following two years. You can narrow to specific disciplines (e.g., economics, medicine) by clicking on the “All Subject Areas” drop down menu.
For example, an impact factor of 1.00 means that the average article from the journal is cited once in the two years following publication in some other research paper. By comparison, a journal with an impact factor of 12.00 would indicate that the average article is cited 12 times in other research papers during the two years following publication. The median impact rating across all journals in most fields is below 1.0, so it’s important to understand where a journal’s impact factor stands relative to other journals in the same field.
Here are some of the top review/meta-analysis journals in psychology:
Annual Review of Psychology
General Review of Psychology
Personality and Social Psychology Review
Now move on to top journals that report original research. Original research reports typically new results being published for the first time. For example, top journals for original research in psychology include:
Archives of General Psychiatry
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
Journal of Abnormal Psychology
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
Bibliographies Provide Great Clues
With any relevant article, you can “cheat” backwards because you can look at their reference list and track down relevant articles. But wouldn’t it be nice if you could cheat ahead, that is see what articles have cited the current article you are reading?
When you are reading an article you find that is right on target for the topic you are pursuing, find that article in www.scholar.google.com . With the hits that come up on a search, there will something that says, “Cited x number of times”. This means that the article has been cited nine times since it was published, and if you click on the “Cited x” link, it will take you to the references for all of those articles. Check the titles and abstracts for relevance, examine the quality of the journals, and then track down the articles you need.
The other thing you might notice is that some authors continue to spring up in your searches and you will also notice that when certain authors publish something that everyone else cites their work. If you identify such scholars, do searches that take advantage of the “written by” in Google Scholar or “author” drop down option for “author” in EBSCO.
There you go. The steps under point four are the key to speeding your search. Speed and order are key are key in this process. In summary:
1. Gather the best review articles and meta-analyses
2. Read the relevant articles from high impact journals
3. Search for recent articles first, then do a broader search
4. Move to lower impact journals
There’s much more to know and I’ll follow-up with additional tutorials about finding research resources including think tanks, long-form journalism, podcasts, YouTube, and good old face-to-face interactions. I’ll also provide some tips about how to decode the formats and language of academic articles.
In the meantime, as a work habit for information literacy, I like to keep in mind two mantras to focus my investigations:
“Work smarter, not longer” and “it’s quality, not quantity.”