Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

NDL301: Information Fluency: Articles

where articles come from

“Periodical” is library jargon for publications that come regularly – for our purposes, we’ll limit our discussion to journals, magazines, and newspapers.

Journals (sometimes called “scholarly journals” or “peer-reviewed journals”) publish original research produced by scholars, usually with other scholars as their target audience. They also publish book reviews, reviews of research, and sometimes brief notices of upcoming events. Every discipline has a core of high-reputation journals, many of them published by scholarly societies, as well as a host of more specialized journals that may have quite a small audience. Though the content is provided for free and the review process is conducted by volunteer scholars, journals usually have staff who receive submissions, find reviewers, communicate with authors, and keep the production on schedule. For a variety of reasons, the cost of scholarly journals, particularly in scientific, medical, and technical fields, has risen so steeply that it has caused a backlash. The “open access” movement has gained a lot of ground in recent years, but the economics of scholarly publishing remains unstable and in a state of flux.

Magazines are a mixed lot and many of them are having trouble maintaining their traditional business model. In the US there once were three major news weeklies, Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News,  and they were major sources of news for the public. Now there is only Time, and its influence is much less. There are also a number of opinion magazines (The Nation, The National Review), some general interest magazines that publish substantial articles and commentary (The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic), and thousands of niche publications from business magazines to highly specialized hobby publications on guns, dolls, hamsters, and nearly anything else you can imagine. A special category is sometimes called “trade publications” – magazines and newsletters aimed at a professional group such as Oil and Gas Journal, Entertainment Law Reporter, or The Chronicle of Higher Education. These provide news about a particular profession, specialty, or industry. Content is typically written by staff or freelance writers who specialize in those fields.

Newspapers produce the famous “first draft of history” while also offering local coverage, features, opinion, commentary, and occasional in-depth investigations. In addition to using online and published information sources, reporters rely on human expertise and develop contacts in their areas of specialty who they can tap for story ideas and quotes. Journalists have a code of ethics and value accuracy, and editorial decisions are (theoretically) separate from the business of generating revenue. However, concentration of ownership combined with shaky advertising revenue has led to newsroom staff cutbacks, use of freelance reporters rather than staff, and even shrinking page size (thanks to spikes in newsprint costs). Newspapers continue to struggle with their relationship to the Web, with The New York Times leading a trend to limit access to subscribers beyond a small number of articles read for free. Pro Publica, a non-profit news organization, is one attempt to find a new funding model for high-quality investigative journalism.

the "fake news" dilemma

"Fake news" is a new label for a variety of things: spoofs, hoaxes, advertising disguised as news ("native" advertising), disinformation, propaganda, and sometimes just news you don't like. A Communication Studies professor, Melissa Zimdars has created a taxonomy of fake news sites with examples. Historians at Stanford University studied students' ability (or lack of ability) to recognize fake news. Given that a large percentage of people worldwide get their news from social media, which rewards hysterical headlines and shocking claims, and a significant percentage of Twitter accounts are automated bots, the culpability of deliberately falsified or propagandistic "news" in the 2016 election became a pressing issue for social media companies.

On the Media has some advice for processing sites that may be fake.


Breaking News Consumer's Handbook - Fake News Edition

finding articles (and more) using databases

Some databases are interdisciplinary indexes to articles in newspapers, magazines, and journals (e.g. Academic Search Premier). Some index a certain type of publication such as newspapers (Proquest Newsstream). Some cover a single field in depth, including books as well as articles (e.g. MLA, ATLA, PsycInfo). Some contain full text, some just citations, and others a mix of both. And then there are full-text archives of journals that are searchable (e.g. JSTOR, Sage Premier). Note that most full-text archives focus on recently-published articles; JSTOR, however, is a historic archive, including every issue back to volume one of the journals covered, but not the most recent issues.

NOTE: libraries have different options to choose among when they subscribe to online databases. The contents of JSTOR at our library is different than the contents of JSTOR at the University of Minnesota; The timeframe covered by Web of Science is more extensive at the U than at our library.

Many times a database tells you about a published article, but does not provide the article itself. Behind the scenes, libraries use software to link database content together. This “link resolver” software runs the “find it” buttons that appear in databases to look for full text of articles or – if unavailable – to help you request it from another library.You might also try running a web search for an article. You might find an open access version posted in a university or disciplinary repository for scholarly research. It’s also not uncommon for researchers to email an author and request a copy. Quite often in the sciences, e-mail information is provided for the “corresponding author” who might be able to help in a pinch.

choosing search terms

You can afford to be far more specific in your search terms when looking for shorter pieces of writing such as articles than when looking for books. The trick is deciding which terms to use. Be prepared to rethink your search multiple times and use an advanced search option when available.

Like catalogs, some databases use “controlled vocabulary” and may have a searchable thesaurus that explains which terms are used as headings (in databases, typically called “descriptors”). They are not likely to be the same terms as found in catalogs. Always scan to the bottom of a record to see if there are additional or alternative terms you can use to search a topic. And see if there is an “advanced search” option that offers more precision and options for combining terms or searching specific fields such as author or journal.

Note: terminology is probably hardest to pin down in the humanities. In these fields, tracking down cited works and browsing play an especially important role in research.

refining a search:

Though options for refining a search vary among databases, the following search hints often apply.

  • Use quotation marks around words that are part of a phrase: “Broadway musicals.”
  • Use AND to connect words that must appear in a document: Ireland AND peace. (In some search engines – Google, for example – “and” is assumed, so you don’t need to type it between words. In others – Academic Search Premier for example – a string of words will be searched as a phrase)
  • Use NOT in front of words that must not appear in a document: Titanic NOT movie.
  • Use OR if only one of the terms must appear in a document: “mountain lion” OR cougar.
  • Use an asterisk as a substitute for letters that might vary: “marine biolog*” (to find marine biology or marine biologist).
  • Use parentheses to group a search expression and combine it with another: (cigarettes OR tobacco OR smok*) AND lawsuits.
  • Many databases build AND, OR, and NOT options into their advanced search.
  • Some databases have proximity rules – by using a particular formula, you can search for two words that appear near each other.

search specific fields

Other limiters may be available, such as finding only scholarly articles or magazine articles in a general database (an option with Academic Search Premier), only full text articles, or by publication date. Note that in many databases, you can choose which field to search; for example, you can search for a topic within a particular publication. (This is really helpful if you know a particular publication is a good source.)

search by cited work

Some databases are beginning to include cited works in their indexing, so you can click on a link to find works that cited the item you’ve located. This is an interesting way to see connections among works. Web of Science is the database that has the most developed citation search feature. It also offers a powerful “related records” search that finds articles that cite the same sources. Google Scholar, which also includes links to cited works, has an arrangement with Web of Science so that you can run the same cited-by search in Web of Science as in Google Scholar, or search for content in Google Scholar from Web of Science.

NOTE: Most databases, with some exceptions (JSTOR most notably), contain only publications from the most recent twenty-five years or so. You may need to use printed indexes, such as the Reader’s Guide to Periodicals or the International Index to find articles published earlier.

try it out

Compare three different databases by searching for your literature review topic in all three.  What search terms work best? What kinds of sources do you find? How many options do you have for narrowing or refining a search? What are strengths and weaknesses of each database? Are there ways to export search results to Zotero?

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License