In the past, I’ve shown you a few useful tips when using Google Scholar: how to link Google Scholar to your library, how to get more search options, and how to cite your references easily. You can see those tips in the original post over here.
Today, I want to show you my personal favourite way to use Google Scholar…
Expanding your search from papers you’ve already found
In my opinion, when doing a literature search, the best and easiest way to expand your results list is to use the articles you’ve already found as a starting point.
That’s what I call the “snowball strategy”.
When you’ve found a very interesting article, there are several things you should do:
- Check out any interesting paper cited in the bibliography;
- Check out what the authors have been up to recently;
- Have a look through the journal’s archives for similar articles;
- And find which papers have cited this particular article.
Each of those points will help you to find more interesting, related articles, with minimum trouble and very little fumbling into bibliographic databases.
This will help you to be as thorough as possible in your literature search and make sure that you’ve covered as much ground as you can.
And as a matter of fact, Google Scholar can help you tremendously with that last point.
Let’s see why and how.
The difference between Google Scholar and the others
Most bibliographic databases allow you to see citing relationships between articles: who has cited whom, who is cited by whom.
The main limitation though, is the size of the database: if an article has been cited by another paper, but that paper has not been added to the database, then the database will have not be able to tell you about it.
This can happen for many different reasons:
- Because that paper has been very recently published and hasn’t been treated by the database’s working bees yet;
- Because it’s slightly outside of the database’s scope – especially if it’s interdisciplinary in nature or actually related to a different field;
- Because the database doesn’t have an agreement with that publisher; etc.
Most bibliographic databases are indeed going to be limited in their scope. But they compensate this disadvantage by being extremely well indexed, providing thesauri and complex sets of limiters, which overall can help you make very precise literature searches.
Google Scholar on the other hand doesn’t have such complex features.
But it’s main advantage is its size: it’s positively huge.
On the one hand, it means that if you’re just entering a couple of keywords in Google Scholar, you’re at risk of retrieving millions of results but not being able to narrow them down very well.
On the other hand, it’s really quite good at finding citing relationships between documents.
Using Google Scholar to look up citing relationships
This is why, while I do not particularly recommend using Google Scholar if you’re just blindly looking for documents on a topic, you should definitely use it once you have found interesting documents.
For example, let’s have a look at this article:
Murray, S., 2004. ‘Celebrating the story the way it is’: cultural studies, corporate media and the contested utility of fandom. Continuum: Journal of media & cultural studies, 18(1), pp.7-25.
I’m just copy – pasting the title in Google Scholar and clicking on the “Search” button.
And I find it immediately.
I can now see that it has been cited 81 times (as far as Google Scholar can tell).
By clicking on “Cited by 81”, I can see those 81 references, check if they’re interesting, and track them down to add them to my reading list…
Do note that the more recent an article is, the less likely it will be to have been cited by other papers.
Indeed, the academic publication process takes time. For an article to be cited by someone else, it needs to have been read by that person, then the author needs to write her own article, submit it, go through peer review, etc.
So you might not need to bother looking up citing relationships for papers that have been published this year…
But you might still want to keep an eye of them!
Here is how.
Create an alert
If you want to know if new articles are citing this article, you can create an alert for it!
To do so, after clicking the “cited by” link, go to the very bottom of the new results page and click on the envelop icon that says “Create Alert”.
Enter your email address, choose how many results you want to appear and click “create alert”. And you’re done!
If you do this for a fundamental paper in your field, it will be a great way to keep up with what’s happening in your whole field.
If you’re doing this for a more “niche” paper, you should get more specific results.
You can also use this technique to check if your own papers are getting cited and by whom! (Or you can use Google Scholar Citation to track citations for all of your papers at once.)
Note that you can create similar alerts for any kind of search that you’ve done using Google Scholar.
But beware: if your search was very broad (i.e.: “geomorphology”), you might end up drowned under the sheer number of papers that are published everyday on that very wide topic!
So make sure your search is better tailored to your research interest. Or use another bibliographic database that will enable you to narrow you search down better before setting up an alert for it. (And ask your librarian if you need more help!)
So what should you be doing now?
Knowing what you now know, here is what I propose you should do…
Have a look at all of the papers you’ve already found and read.
Which ones were the most interesting ones? Which ones were the most closely related to your own topic? Which ones are absolutely fundamental in your field?
Try and make a short list (I would go for no more than 10 papers for now) and search for each of them in Google Scholar.
Have a look at the list of papers they’ve been cited by, try and see if you want to track some down, and decide if you want to set up an alert for that paper.
You could go through all of those papers in one afternoon, or print down your list and tick one a day for the next few days…
Then don’t forget to take the time to actually read the new papers you’ve found…
Finally, repeat the process with any outstanding paper you find!
And let me know if you found interesting new articles in the comments!