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Guest Thinkers

How To Search the Scientific Literature: Tips From an Expert Librarian

Robin Chin Roemer, assistant librarian at American University, has launched a new blog focused on library resources related to communication and the media.  Given the strong focus among AU communication faculty and students on issues related to sustainability, the environment and science, in a guest post today, she is joined in her advice by AU’s science librarian Rachel Borchardt who co-produces the podcast “Adventures in Library Instruction.”  Here’s an excerpt from Borchardt’s post offering a very strong overview on strategies for effectively searching the scientific literature.

Looking for some ways to find reliable scientific information, but not sure where to start?  For my guest post, I decided to share a few tips for using American University’s scientific databases,  in the hope that will help SOC’ers interested in science research to find and access good articles this semester.

Here’s my resulting list of five useful scientific databases, with tips and a few images included below.


This is a great science database for a variety of information in the environmental sciences.  One thing that makes GREENR different from other databases is that it brings together journal articles with lots of other sources of information, including blogs, podcasts, case studies, newspaper articles, and reference sources. It’s a great “all-in-one” destination.


  • In addition to keyword searching, you can browse GREENR using topic guides, or use their world map to locate information on an environmental issues for a particular country. 
  • 2. Wiley-Blackwell Cochrane Library

    Cochrane is well known in the medical community for providing accurate and up-to-date reports on medical literature.  Need to know the best current treatment for cardiovascular disease?  Wondering about malaria vaccine efficacy?  This is the database for you.


    • If a keyword search doesn’t bring up great results, try the MeSH search. MeSH stands for medical subject headings.  For example, “avian flu” brings up 2 results, but searching for the MeSH term “Influenza in Birds” yields 7 results.
    • When you find a Cochrane Review (look for the “Review” symbol – and pay attention to the date!), be sure to check out the Plain Language Summary, which summarizes research on the topic in non-medical terms. Very helpful!
    • 3. PubMed

      PubMed is the definitive source for literature related to health.  This includes topics in biology, environmental science, public health, neuroscience, and so forth – it’s a very large, broad database. Unlike Wiley, there is no “Plain Language Summary,” but the breadth of topics is much greater.


      • Like the Cochrane Library, PubMed also uses MeSH, but it does so automatically. That is to say, PubMed takes your search and tries to translate it into MeSH terms it thinks are appropriate. And it’s usually right.  Consequently, don’t be afraid to type the first thing that comes to mind and see what you get.
      • Another good tip, for those worried about scientific jargon: once you’ve done a search in PubMed, try clicking on “Review” in the upper-right corner under “Filter Your Results”.  Review articles in the sciences take 50-150 articles and summarize them. These articles are generally a bit broader in scope, and are often a bit easier to read.
      • 4. Web of Science

        Web of Science is often the “default” science database, because it does a great job of covering lots of science disciplines fairly in-depth.  If what you’re after isn’t exactly health-related (say, for example, plant life in the Chesapeake Bay), Web of Science is usually a good option.

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        • Web of Science works more like a “traditional” database than the other databases covered in this list – so keyword searching is the default.  There are also no subject headings in Web of Science, just “topics” that you can use to narrow your search to a specific discipline.
        • Web of Science’s #1 feature is the Cited Reference Search.  Whenever you find an article, not only will it list all of the articles cited in the paper (i.e., that paper’s bibliography), but it will also give you the number of times that paper has been cited in other papers’ bibliographies.  Using this “times cited” feature will help you find papers that are on a similar topic, and are also more recent than the original article. Very handy!
        • 5. PsycInfo

          This is the definitive database for all things psychology-related. Psychology can often be the “why” behind a news story, and can provide additional data regarding perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and actions.


          • Usually, the best way to use PsycInfo is to think, “if I were a psychology researcher, how might I approach this topic?”. For example, if you’re looking at differences in how men and women drive, instead of typing “men and women and driving” as your keywords, you might use “gender and automobiles” or even “gender and multitasking.”
          • When you search PsycInfo using keywords, you may find that the database directs you a list of subject headings — basically official keywords that it thinks you might want to use instead.  Unfortunately, these headings are not always accurate or exhaustive as those deployed in other databases, like PubMed.  To avoid this hassle – unclick the “Map Term to Subject Heading” button on the front page of the database, then proceed with your keyword search per normal.
          • Find out more about the MA in Public Communication and MA in Political Communication at American University where you can study how to effectively communicate about complex policy problems related to sustainability, energy policy and the environment.  See also our new PhD program in Media, Technology and Democracy.


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