Finding Sources

Finding Sources – How to Search the Literature


Choosing suitable sources for any piece of scientific writing is important, because these sources will help add relevant detail to your writing. In any form of scientific writing, you would like your reader to know that you are credible and know what you are writing about; part of this credibility can be achieved by using reliable resources to find and cite scientific written work. Finding the most useful and relevant information on any scientific topic requires knowledge of which resources are available to you. Below is a list of many of these resources for finding scientific information, along with helpful guidelines on how to use them.

  • Use a Research Guide. Research guides help you find specific sources for disciplines that you may not be familiar with.
  • If you are a UBC student and/or have a Campus Wide Login (CWL), you can use the UBC Library Home page to find articles, eBooks, theses and much more! The UBC library has subscriptions to a huge number of specialist journals that will house useful sources. If you are a student at another institution, visit your library and/or contact a librarian to find out how to make the most of the amazing resources available to you (on the shelves, and online).
  • Google Scholar is another great way to find the scientific information you need. UBC students and CWL holders can access Google Scholar through the UBC Library website: UBC library Home Page > Indexes and Databases > Google Scholar. If you are on campus or sign in from home you can access the full-text of many articles that is not available publicly.Students at other institutions can access this resource directly at:, but you should again chat to your librarian to find out how to gain access to the full records via your own library.
  • Web of Science can be accessed by UBC students and CWL holders through the UBC Library website: UBC Library Home page > Indexes and Databases tab > Web of Science. This resource is basically a dedicated search engine, which you can use to find specific articles relevant to a topic you are writing about; there are many filters that can be added in your searches (such as ‘keywords’ and years of publication) to return very specific results. Students at other institutions should again talk to their librarians to find out how to access this resource.

How can you keep track of all your references?

  • Use Refworks! UBC students and CWL holders can access Refworks through the UBC Library website: UBC Library Home page > Indexes and Databases tab > RefWorks and RefShare. Students at other institutions should talk to their librarians to find out how to access this resource.

RefWorks is an online personal reference database that allows you to quickly import and manage references from other online databases for easy access in the future. RefWorks is useful because it creates citations for you, and in the style you need. But be careful when using this option, as it should be the appropriate style required by your instructor.

Search Strategies

To maximize the effectiveness of using the above resources, optimize your use of search tools. Writing about science requires you to find and use credible sources (e.g. citing a source from 50 years ago might not be a wise move if the theory around the topic has moved on since then). There are many resources out there to help you, but inefficient searches can sometimes be overly time-consuming and ineffective. To more efficiently search and find applicable sources, use the strategies below. Keep practicing, and soon searching the scientific literature will seem less daunting!

Maximizing effective use of resources

Check out the Help section(s) to understand exactly how each resource works and what/where it searches:

  • e.g. 2) Web of Science: go to ‘Help’ at the top right hand side - this gives you an idea of how the Web of Science works.

Ways to Expand Search Ways to Narrow Search
  • Use the Boolean operator ‘OR’ to expand your search (use OR if you want mORe)
    • e.g. Canine OR dog
    • e.g. forests OR trees

Using ‘OR’ allows you to search synonyms or alternate terms for your concept. This allows the search engine to bring up articles with either of these words and articles containing both these words. It is useful to use ‘OR’ because not every researcher will write using the exact same vocabulary.

Using different terms allows for more search results to appear without eliminating potentially useful articles. Everything found in light and dark blue will appear in the search results; there have been no limitations set.

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  • Use the Boolean operator ‘AND’ to narrow your search
    • e.g. virus AND Aids

Using ‘AND’ narrows down your search to something more specific. The search engine will pull up every article that includes both words.

Only the articles represented by the darker blue section will appear, increasing the relevance of the list of search results.

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  • Use Filters for content type: articles, books, review paper etc
    • e.g. search for ‘global warming’ – filter: peer-reviewed journal articles

If you would like a specific type of resource or written work, identifying this is a great way to minimize your search. As seen below, the search returns only what is found in the darker blue circle.

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  • Use Snowballing:

Take a look at the references at the end of an article, and skim those references next. The chances are high that you’ll find quite a bit of useful information in those references.

  • Use a publication date limit:
    • e.g. Climate change - last five years

Setting a publication limit searches for the most up-to-date research. Many scientific theories and concepts are continually researched over time and new discoveries are made. It is important for your scientific writing to have new references to make your work more credible. Only work found in the darker blue section will appear in the list of search results.

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  • Use truncation or wildcards
    • e.g. Canad* finds Canada', Canadian, Canadians

This type of search allows for many variations of the word to be searched. It maximizes the amount of articles that come up that may be related to your topic.

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  • Use keywords chunking – search separately for each concept
    • e.g. Bessel beam, optical trap

When each concept is separately searched, you will obtain all the references for both concepts, resulting in a greater span of written work. Again your results will provide all the articles on both of the separate concepts, as seen below.

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  • Use “ ” phrase searching - Used to narrow a search to a phrase of two or more words.
    • e.g. “climate change”

Using this tool will search for the references which include these two words together. Those articles that do not contain both words together as they are written will not appear in the search.

  • Use the Boolean operator ‘NOT’: use ‘NOT’ to remove words from your results
    • e.g. Virus NOT Aids

By using the NOT operator, your results will be decreased. But use it cautiously, as you may omit useful results (perhaps only after you have viewed a long list and decided to narrow it down). In the sample below, only written work in the lighter - and not darker - blue will appear in your search..

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  • Search by scientific name in addition to the common name
    • e.g. pine beetles OR Dendroctonus ponderosae

Searching by both names will output all the references under this category. As seen below, all the written works that have either name will appear in the search results.

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  • Search your topic by document type
    • e.g. “aerosol particle”: title, abstract, or full text, etc.

Searching for a topic in a specific document type will narrow your search down to give something potentially more useful. Only the documents that have ‘aerosol particle’ in the title will result from the search.

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Need more help?

Watch ‘Grammar Squirrel’s video resources about identifying different sources and integrating them into your science writing on the UBC Science Writing YouTube Channel.