Finding Scientific Literature

Previously published research, often referred to as the “scientific literature” or just the “the literature,” is invaluable to scientists. Reading the scientific literature prevents us from unintentionally reinventing the wheel, allows us to build upon one another’s work, and helps us to recognize the important unresolved questions in the field. The literature also provides important context, support, and explanations for our new research findings. In other words, good science is built on a foundation of what we already know and is part of a larger conversation about what we don’t yet know, what we want to know, and what we think something means. Using and citing the literature in your writing makes these connections and context clear to our readers.

Citing the literature in your writing is not only an honest reflection of the earlier science on which your work is based and the current context into which it fits, but is important to reaching your audience and achieving your writing goals. Citing the literature allows your readers to

  • evaluate the significance of your research questions.
  • examine the validity of your methods and conclusions.
  • and find more information on your topic(s).

Knowing how to find, use, and cite the literature effectively and efficiently is a critical skill for all scientific writers. On this page, we’ll examine how to find scientific literature that is relevant to your writing. The Using Literature page will discuss how to use the literature you found appropriately, including whether and when to cite information and how to paraphrase.

Source Validation & Peer Review

Source validation – evaluating the scientific reliability of a source – is an essential skill that scientific writers must develop. Numerous online sources, including Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab and Columbia University’s Academic Integrity site, are available for learning how to evaluate your sources, so we do not go into detail here.

Briefly, peer-reviewed research articles and review papers (described further below) in scientific journals, as well as reports by scientists with related expertise who are affiliated with government agencies and professional scientific societies are generally considered as more reliable sources of scientific information. In contrast, non-peer-reviewed publications (e.g., websites) or publications authored by non-scientists, by scientists with expertise in an unrelated field, or by those who stand to profit off of a particular finding are generally considered as less reliable sources of scientific information.

Peer-review is the process by which scientists with relevant expertise review a manuscript prior to publication and make recommendations to either reject the paper for publication, to request changes followed by re-review, or to publish (often after minor changes are made). Peer review is considered as an essential process that improves the reliability of the published literature.

Using Scientific Publication Databases

The most common way of beginning a search for peer-reviewed scientific literature is to use a scientific publication database. Numerous online databases are available, often only with a paid subscription, that allow researchers to search by keyword among thousands of scientific research publications. These include databases like Scopus, PubMed, and SciFinder, among many others. Google Scholar is a publicly available option for web searching. Depending on your institution’s subscriptions, these databases may provide you only with citations for papers that match your keyword search, with citations and abstracts, or with access to the full-text of the publication. Because institutional access differs widely, we focus here on general approaches to finding appropriate literature and encourage you to work with your institution’s library staff to learn the details of actually obtaining the full-text publication once you’ve found a citation of interest.

When you are just getting started in a new field of science or particular topic within a scientific field, your initial database searches may yield too few, too many, or simply irrelevant citations. We tackle each of these scenarios in turn, followed by a summary table of tips for finding an adequate number of relevant citations.

What if my keyword search returns too few or irrelevant hits?

In the case of too few or irrelevant search hits, it may be that there is, in fact, limited literature on your topic. This might be the case in a very new or very narrow field of research. While possible, too few or irrelevant search results is more commonly due to searching an inappropriate database for your topic or to using inappropriate keywords. For example, PubMed only catalogues literature related to basic and applied life science research and would not be the best database to search for literature on quantum physics or plate tectonics. Every database provides a summary of the types of publications it covers, so take a look at the coverage of a given database before beginning your search.

If you are searching an appropriate database but are still not finding enough papers, your search terms may be too specific. Let’s take the example of searching for literature related to migratory birds and the Chesapeake Bay and examine how different approaches to keyword searching can broaden or limit the number of database hits.

Search Terms Can Expand Search Hits to a Useful Number

Another keyword problem that may overly limit the number of hits or yield irrelevant hits is that your keywords may not be those that a practicing scientist would use. Oftentimes, you need to do some “pre-searching” to refine your keywords. Pre-searching might include quick internet or even Wikipedia (gasp!) searching to find some of the terms scientists are using related to your topic. 

Most internet sites and Wikipedia are not considered reliable sources of scientific information to actually use or cite in your work, but they can still provide valuable starting point for finding useful keywords for your literature search.


What if my keyword search returns too many hits?

If your keyword search yields too many hits, the most likely problem is that your search terms lack specificity. Consider the following example of using search to limit the number of hits into a reasonable range.

Search Terms Can Constrain Search Hits to a Useful Number

Once you have refined your search hits to a somewhat manageable number, many databases allow you to filter the results to select certain types of literature and not others. It is common to filter literature to work published within the previous 5 years, for example, in order to start your research with the most current and up-to-date science, or to exclude conference papers, which may not be peer-reviewed. If available for a given database, it can be helpful to limit search results to (peer-reviewed) review articles. Review articles are distinct from research articles, in that they typically do not present original empirical findings. Rather, review articles summarize and synthesize a great many original research articles with the goal of articulating the state-of-the-science in a particular area and the important unresolved questions or promising directions for the field. Recent review articles are great places to begin your own research into a field and are useful to cite in your writing, because they provide your readers with a “one-stop shop” for the latest science on a particular topic.

Summary of Literature Database Search Strategies


Footnote Chasing & Cited Reference Searching

Once you’ve found an article that is highly relevant to your topic, you can use it to help you find more good resources using two techniques:

  • footnote chasing, which refers to using the bibliography of the paper you found as a gold mine of related literature. This is a way of looking back in time to see what earlier research informed the paper you found.
  • cited reference searching, which refers to finding more recent papers that cited the paper you found. This is a way of looking forward in time to see how the paper you found has been received and cited by the scientific community, including whether and how it has been applied or contributed to recent findings.

You can implement both of these strategies using publication databases. Many database search tools provide hyperlinked lists of references cited by the paper you found, allowing you to quickly chase down any older papers of interest. Similarly, databases often provide a “Cited by” link that will take you to a list of more recent papers who cited the paper you found.


This completes our section on Finding Scientific Literature for your writing. Considering exploring the Using Scientific Literature section of the site next, where you’ll learn best practices for paraphrasing and citing your sources.

Go to next section: Using Scientific Literature