One of the questions I often get asked by new research students in my lab is how can they find research papers that are relevant to their thesis. For a student new to research this can be a very daunting task and doing a straight Google, Bing or Yahoo search generates a lot of noise (i.e. irrelevant content, non peer-reviewed papers, etc.).
The first advice I usually give is where to start searching. There are a number of academic-specific search engines that provide good results from a wide variety of researcher, publisher and academic websites. For example:
Each of these search engines will provide a list of research papers relevant to any keywords entered. However, academic search engines can still lead to several problems: there can still be a lot of results from a wide range of sources and there can still be relevant results that your search did not find.
Drilling down through too many results
A search for “software testing” in Google Scholar produces 3,320,000 results – way too many results to go through completely! Refining your search is a good way to reduce the number of results. For example, if you are interested in testing concurrent software you could search for “concurrency testing” and Google Scholar will produce 96,400 results. This is still a lot of papers but at least the results are listed in order of relevance. Once you find a paper you like you can drill down further by next looking at papers that are related or papers that cite this work.
Other ways to drill down through the results are to focus on papers from specific publishers, conferences/journals or papers that are written by specific authors.
Finding missing results
A lot of times missing results are due to the choice of keywords selected for the search. Varied terminology can exist even within a given research discipline and if you don’t know all of the keywords you are looking for then it is easy to miss relevant research papers. For example, I conduct research in the area of concurrency testing. A simple search for “concurrency testing” in Google Scholar will miss results about parallel program testing and multicore software testing (which both overlap heavily with concurrency testing). I always advise new students to talk to their supervisor or other students in their research lab about the search terms they use. Increasing the breadth of terms used will decrease the likelihood of important results being omitted.
Search vs. browse
All of the above advice is focused on finding relevant research papers using keyword search. Another strategy for finding papers is to browse conference proceedings, journal issues and researcher websites. You can browse a conference proceedings or journal issue by visiting the publisher’s website since most publishers usually have a digital library containing all of their proceedings, journal issues and books. For example, my students typically use papers published by:
Most publisher websites should be available through your university library.
You can also browse a specific researcher’s publications on their personal website (usually hosted by their university), on their academic search profile (e.g., Google Scholar) or on their social networking profile (e.g., ResearchGate).
Don’t be afraid to seek help from your supervisor, fellow students and your university librarian.
Also, you will almost certainly end up reading papers that are not relevant to your thesis or current research project. Don’t view this as wasted effort – you never know when this research might inspire a new idea or help you solve a future research problem.