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Resources for Finding and Accessing Scientific Papers


Reading scientific literature is a critical part of conceiving of and executing a successful advanced science project. The How to Read a Scientific Paper guide can help you get the most out of each paper you read—first, of course, you have to actually get your hands on the paper! That's where this guide comes in. Below you'll find tips and resources for both searching for and acquiring free copies of scientific papers to read.

Academic Search Engines: Resources for Finding Science Paper Citations

When you start your background research, one of the early steps is finding and reading the scientific literature related to your science project (see the Roadmap: How to Get Started On an Advanced Science Project article for more details on project steps). Mentors are a great resource for recommendations about which scientific papers are critical for you to read and you should definitely ask your mentor, or another expert in the field, for advice. But there'll also be times when your mentor is busy or isn't up-to-date on a particular experimental method, in which case, you'll need to be proactive and hunt for papers on your own. It turns out that just plugging search terms into a regular search engine, like Google, Yahoo, or MSN, isn't very effective. The pages you get back will be a wide mixture of websites, and very few will be links to peer-reviewed scientific papers. To find scientific literature, the best thing to use is an academic search engine.

There are many different academic search engines. Some focus on a single discipline, while others have citations from multiple fields. There are a handful of free, publicly available academic search engines that can be accessed online; some of these are listed in Table 1, below. The remainder, like the ISI Web of Science, are subscription-based. Universities and colleges often subscribe to academic search engines. If you can't find what you need using a free search engine, you may be able to access these resources from computers in a university or college library. Consult the school's library webpage, or call the library directly, to find out to which academic search engines they subscribe to and whether or not you'd be allowed into the library to access them.

Table 1: This table provides a list of free, online academic search engines for various science disciplines.

Academic Search Engine URL Disciplines Help Files
Google Scholar scholar.google.com All scholar.google.com/intl/en/scholar/help.html
ScienceDirect http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/search All NA
Pubmed www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed Life sciences www.nlm.nih.gov/bsd/disted/pubmedtutorial
IEEE Xplore ieeexplore.ieee.org/Xplore/guesthome.jsp Electronics, Electrical engineering, Computer science NA
National Agricultural Library (AGRICOLA) agricola.nal.usda.gov Agriculture agricola.nal.usda.gov/help/quicksearch.html
Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) eric.ed.gov Education NA

Here are a few tips to help you get started with the academic search engines:

Note: The results of academic search engines come in the form of an abstract, which you can read to determine if the paper is relevant to your science project, as well as a full citation (author, journal title, volume, page numbers, year, etc.) so that you can find a physical copy of the paper. Search engines do not necessarily contain the full text of the paper for you to read. A few, like PubMed, do provide links to free online versions of the paper, when one is available. Read on for help finding the full paper.

How to Get a Copy of a Scientific Paper

Once you've found the citation for a paper that is relevant to your advanced science project, the next step is actually getting a copy so that you can read it. As mentioned above, some search engines provide links to free online versions of the paper, if one exists. If the search engine doesn't, or if you got the citation somewhere else, like the bibliography of another science paper you were reading, there are several ways to find copies.

Searching for Newer Papers (published during Internet era)

Table 2: List of databases containing free, full-text scientific papers and data sets.

Database URL Disciplines
NASA Scientific and Technical Information (STI) www.sti.nasa.gov/STI-public-homepage.html Aerospace
SOA/NASA Astrophysics Data System adswww.harvard.edu/ Astronomy, physics
arXiv arxiv.org/ Physics, Mathematics, Computer science, Quantitative biology, Quantitative finance and statistics
CiteSeerX citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/ Computer science
Public Library of Science (PLOS) https://www.plos.org/ Life sciences
High Wire Press highwire.stanford.edu/lists/freeart.dtl Life sciences

Searching for Older Papers (published pre-Internet era)

Even with all of the above searching methods, you may not be able to find a free copy of the paper online. This is particularly true for older science papers, which were published before online content became routine. In these cases, there are additional ways to get the paper at no or minimal cost.