Scientific Literature 101: Finding Research Papers Guide

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The frustrating reality of the skincare industry is that there is a glut of false promises and exaggerated claims. Equally harmful are those who bash ingredients or products based on pseudo-science and half-truths. Wading through this misinformation can become tiring.

While you’ve likely found a few reliable sources, maybe you still have questions and want to read the source material for yourself. Scientific papers are a great resource for this, but they can be difficult to access and daunting to read if you aren’t familiar with the process.

As a Master’s student in biology, I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to hone my research skills. I have found that these skills are useful outside of school and rely on them to help inform myself about the world I live in, including my interest in skincare. As I’ve gotten more involved with skincare, I have seen others with questions who could benefit from learning these skills. With this in mind, here is a guide to help you find, read, and interpret scientific articles if you are unfamiliar with the process.

Databases

Research papers are published in journals usually dedicated to a specific subset of science. You can find journal archives on their websites, but it is much easier to search for articles in databases. Much like regular search engines, science databases are searched using keywords relating to the subject that you are interested in.

One of the easiest and most used databases is Google Scholar. It is easily accessible to the general public and its user interface is set up like regular Google, making it intuitive to navigate. (For the record, even though everyone talks about Pub-Med, many scientists avoid it for its difficulty to use. I rarely use it and don’t recommend it as a starting point for your own research.)

Accessibility

If you are a college or university student, you should have easy access to full articles through Google Scholar, often otherwise hidden behind pay-walls. You can access this if you are using your campus network or network proxy. If you are off campus, you will be prompted to log in with your library or internet account. This is based on my own experience, so ask your school I.T. for more information if this isn’t working for you. Follow these instructions for access:

  1. Open Settings from the top menu, then Library Links from the side bar and search your institute.
  2. One or more library options should appear below the search bar, which you can activate by checking the box.
  3. This will give you access to full articles; at my school, this appears as a new link to the right of the main search results link. After you click this link, you may be prompted to login with your school credentials, which will lead you to the unlocked article page.

If you don’t have access to school journal subscriptions, don’t lose hope! You can still sometimes access full articles. I suggest doing initial searches with Google Scholar to find potential articles. Sometimes, you will find you have access because the article is “open access” or “open archive”, meaning that the publishers have made the article available publicly immediately or after a designated period.  You will have to open the article page and look for the “Full Text” option (see image below). It is a bit trial-and-error. That I know of, there is no specific search function to search only open access articles on any major database.

If you can’t access the full article, you can still read the abstracts (see Part Two) to get some information. Other resources for accessing the full article include:

  • Asking friends or the people of /r/scholar to give you the article as a PDF file.
  • Contacting your local public library to see if they have paid for access to certain journals or databases for full text viewing rights.
  • Searching open access publications specifically. Examples of journals include Elsevier Open Access, Elsevier Open Archive, and BioMed Central Open Access Publisher.

Searching

Now that you have an access point, what do you search? To search effectively, you will need to know enough on the subject to make a list of search terms for your topic, including synonyms. When you hear science students joke about relying on Wikipedia, this is probably where we are using it!

Let’s run through an example. I am interested in knowing if there are detrimental effects to wearing sunscreen.

  1. List your initial keywords. I want to look up sunscreen and “detrimental effects”. But I should also look up different combinations including: “sun block”, “sun protection”, as well as “negative effects” and “side effects”.
  2. Narrow or broaden your search. When I search combinations of these terms, I’m not finding many useful articles but getting a lot of hits. This makes me think that my search is too broad. I already know that vitamin D deficiency as well as toxic compounds have been talked about with sunscreen use, and I am most interested in vitamin D deficiency, so instead of just “negative effects”, I narrow it down to: “sunscreen” and “vitamin D deficiency”. I can also try “rickets”.
  3. Search for reviews first. When I am researching a topic new to me, I like to read reviews before I read original research papers (more on that later) so I include the term “review” as a key word. Scientific reviews always use the word review in the title, which makes them easy to identify.

Using these search parameters, I am able to find a few reviews and original research articles that appeal to me. It almost always takes a few searches to find what you are looking for, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t see anything of interest in the first attempt!

Advanced Searching

There are other ways to narrow your search criteria. The simplest way is to use the Advanced Search option, located by clicking the down-facing arrow on the right of the search bar.

I tend to treat the advanced search as a filter after my first search attempts. First, I put my key terms in the first box labelled with all of the words. If you keep seeing a topic that is not relevant, filter it out by placing keyword(s) related to it in the without the words box. Changing where you find the words from article to title can narrow your search, although, I rarely bother with this option. If you are interested in finding papers by a specific author or journal — for example, one that publishes as open access — you can use the Author and Journal boxes. Finally, if you keep getting hits for really old articles, you can try constraining the timeframe from 2000–2015 or 2005–2015. Older does not equal worse, but it can give you an incomplete or out-of-date picture.

You can also use Boolean search parameters. With regular searches, you just tell the search engine what key words to look up, but with Boolean searches, you also tell the search engine how to look up the key words. I don’t recommend doing a full Boolean search, and rarely fully use them myself, but there are several very useful commands that you can integrate into your regular searches: brackets and the minus sign.

Brackets allow you to search two or more words in that exact order, so, instead of looking up vitamin D deficiency and getting results with “vitamin” and “D” and “deficiency”, if you search “vitamin D deficiency”, you only receive hits that contain “vitamin D deficiency” exactly as is.

If you include -minus or -“minus this whole phrase”, you will not receive any articles with that single term or phrase. In the example above, I didn’t want any articles related to bone health. This is really useful for weeding out irrelevant topics and can even be used in your regular Google searches.

So, that’s it for the first part of this guide. If you have any comments or questions, leave them in the comments and I will try to get a response!

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