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The search for gold – finding scientific papers

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There has been a huge increase in the number of studies being conducted on applied animal behavior, which is great news for those of us in the field! Keeping up with the research gives us great power to improve the outcomes of the dogs – or other species – that we work with. Scientific literacy in animal training and behavior will become more and more critical to success as that knowledge becomes wider and more accessible.

Of course, keeping up with science is easier said than done! Simply finding the article you want, and getting access to it, can be a big hurdle. How do you find the articles you’re interested in? Just as important – how do you get access to them? This blog post will give you the tips and tricks you need to do that successfully without getting totally overwhelmed.

Let’s start with how to find articles. If you are looking for a research article, you want to make sure whatever you are reading is peer-reviewed. This means that the article has been reviewed by other scientists in the field. The job of the reviewers is to assess the methods, analysis, and interpretation of the results. They also determine whether the research question is something that is new, impactful, and relevant to the field. Typically, they will make comments and send the manuscript back to the original researchers for edits. If the edits are satisfactory, the article will then be published. If the article is not up to par, it will be rejected and we will never see it. This process acts as quality control to make sure that the studies being published and distributed meet rigorous scientific standards. I can tell you from experience that researchers and academics take this very seriously! You can check out this link to find out how to determine if a journal is peer-reviewed.

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Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

My first stop is almost always google scholar. You simply go to the site and type in your search terms, just like you would in a normal google search. However, in this case, it’s searching academic databases instead of the general internet. The search results will pull up articles in peer-reviewed journals that match your search terms. Sometimes you will get articles from other sources, such as books or master’s theses, so be careful to check that your source is a peer-reviewed journal (assuming that’s what you’re looking for).

One drawback of searching for articles in Google Scholar is that you have to know the correct search terms. If you don’t, it can be difficult to find what you’re looking for. Let’s say you’re interested in impulse control in dogs. I did a search for “dogs impulse control” and got a list of results. This pulls up a list of papers, but it’s not exactly what I’m looking for. There are some papers that focus on impulse control, but many are more medical-based than I’d prefer. I want articles about how impulse behavior impacts everyday behavior and behavior issues. A search for “dogs impulse control behavior” doesn’t do much better. If I happen to know to search for the word “impulsivity”, I will get results that are more in line with what I’m actually looking for.

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But, what happens when you don’t know the right words and you can’t find what you’re looking for? One possibility is that there simply haven’t been studies done on the topic you’re looking for. However, before you give up, there are a number of tricks that can help you find what you’re looking for if it does exist!

  1. Check “Similar articles.” Use the “similar articles” feature in Google Scholar. Once you find an article similar to what you’re looking for, you can click on “similar articles” under the Google Scholar search result and it will pull up articles that it thinks are related. Let’s say I have found the article by Coppola et al. titled “Human interaction and cortisol: can human contact reduce stress for shelter dogs?” Under the write up is a link that says “related articles”. If you click that, you will get a list of other, similar articles. This can be an excellent way to find articles you may have missed otherwise!
  2. Check “Cited by.” Use the “cited by” feature in Google Scholar. Again, once you find an article you like, you can click on “cited by” under the write up (just to the left of “related articles”). Scholar will then list all of the articles that have cited the original article. This is also a great way to find more recent publications. As a side note, knowing how many articles have cited a paper also gives you an indication of 1) how influential the paper is and 2) how popular the topic is.
  3. Read the introduction. Find a paper you’ve already identified and read the introduction. This is a great way to find additional research related to the topic you are interested in. It’s also a nice way to get an overview of the topic if you are new to it. Often (but not always), the information in the introduction is presented in a more accessible way as it is meant to provide background information to people who may not be intimately familiar with that topic.
  4. Check journals. Identify journals that tend to cover topics you are interested in and subscribe to their feeds. Animals is a good starting place. It’s open access (i.e. free) and has a wide range of articles. If you go to their main page, look on the right side and you will see a box that says “e-mail alert”. Enter your e-mail there to get updates. The Journal of Veterinary Behavior also has a lot of good articles. It is not open access, but if you are a PPG member, you get a discount that makes a subscription to the journal very affordable!
  5. Follow Science Daily. Science Daily is a research news site. This page is the dog news page. It misses a lot of articles, but it’s a nice easy way to find new research without much extra effort – handy for those of you that are super busy!

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Hopefully, at this point, you will have a list of papers that you are interested in reading! The next step is figuring out how to get access. If you are currently affiliated with a college or university as a student or staff member, this part is easy. If you are not, it’s more of a treasure hunt, but it’s usually still possible to get papers! Here are a number of things you can try.

  1. Check Google Scholar. You can often get papers directly from Google Scholar. When you do your search, look to the right-hand side of the page. If there is a PDF available, there will be a second column. It will say [PDF] followed by the source. For example, “[PDF] researchgate.net” Click on that link and you’ll get access to the PDF! Let’s revisit some of the search results from earlier. In this case, the very first article by Coppola et al. is not available as a PDF through Google Scholar. However, the next four articles are.
  2. Utilize college and university libraries. This is the best option – if you can get access. Many colleges and universities provide access to journal databases for their alumni. Public institutions will also often provide access to state/county/city residents. However, in most cases, the online access is very limited and you need to go to the school libraries for full access. This has become much more difficult since COVID. My local state college and community college are still not allowing public access to libraries. That means for now, this may not be a viable option for most people.
  3. Check the journal site Look for a link on the article page that says “download PDF” or “view full text”. If the article is open access, you’ll get access to the full article. If it’s not, it’s going to ask you to pay for the article, so you can stop there! Yes, you could pay if you really, really want to, but it’s usually not necessary and may not be worth it depending on how badly you want to read the paper.
  4. Use unpaywall.org. Unpaywall is a browser extension that helps locate open access versions of research articles. This link was recently provided to me by a very helpful university librarian, so I know it’s legit (and I know others who use it as well). This has helped me access several papers that I could not get using the methods above!
  5. Make us of interlibrary loan. Most public libraries have this option and it may allow you to get access to journal articles that you would not be able to get otherwise.
  6. Ask. Dog people can join the Facebook group Canine Behavior Research Studies and may be able to get access by asking in that group. Also ask family and friends – some of them may have access to research articles. Finally, you can e-mail the author and ask for a copy. If you use this option, please be respectful of their time – researchers are extremely busy! I only use this option when none of the other options have worked and when I definitely plan to read the paper. I do not request copies of papers I am only mildly interested in. The contact information for the author is typically located on the articles page (you’ll have access to the citation information and abstract even if you don’t have access to the rest of the paper).

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That should be enough to get you started! Next month I’ll talk a little bit more about how to read and apply an article once you’re able to get access!

Lastly, if you don’t have the time – or interest – in searching out papers on your own, I do this for you with Research Bites. I rearranged my entire career trajectory just so I could stay current with the field and pass research on to trainers, shelter and rescue workers, and others interested in dog training and behavior. This means I spend a lot of my time finding and reading journal articles so that you don’t have to!

What articles have you found recently that you think are worth sharing? Reply in the comments!

Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

3 comments

  1. Absolutely excellent run down of how to find scholarly work; one of the best I’ve read. (As a retired librarian and university instructor, I am qualified to make that assessment. 🙂 )

    1. Wow, thank you! That is very high praise given your background. I hope that others find it helpful as well, particularly those with limited experience in finding papers. It can be a big challenge!

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