Tricks Research Writers Use to Find Primary Sources


Researching primary sources is time-intensive. As I like to say, “there are no shortcuts.” But there are tricks research writers use to gather information. Here are four of these researching tricks that can help you more quickly and efficiently locate primary sources:

  1. Use multiple databases
  2. Check your source’s citation lists
  3. Use database “Cited By” and “Keyword” or “Subject” tools
  4. Search for the publication in the “Full-Text” Journals tool when you can’t find a full-text listing

1. Use Multiple Databases

The library is going to subscribe to many databases. Don’t restrict your search to just the popular Academic Search Premier and Jstor. Look through your library’s subject guides. These guides will recommend databases. Also scan the library’s extensive online database list. Trying your searches within specialty databases will increase your chances of finding relevant sources. Google Scholar, a researcher’s version of the google search engine, is also a useful tool:

2. Check Your Source’s Citation Lists

Don’t overlook the key tip that your primary sources will also have lists of sources, usually at the end. Just keep in mind the limitation that all the sources in these lists will be dated before the article came out. They are what the authors had available at the time. For example, at the end of the article, “Name Discrimination in the Recruitment Process by Recruiters,” you’ll find the following list.

Perhaps one or more of these sources can become a key to a deeper research paper.

3. Use the “Cited By” and “Keyword” or “Subject” Database Tools

Basically, when you find sources in a database, you want to use some of those great database advantages. These advantages include additional information entered for each article by the database service, such as:

  • The sources that cited your source 
  • The keywords or subject words filed with your source

“Cited By” Tools

For instance, consider the following article:

Meagher, K. (2015). Name discrimination in the recruitment process by recruiters. International Journal of Social Science Studies, 3(6), 20-34. RedFame Retrieved July 25, 2019. doi: [APA citation]

The database site for this article has a link called “Google Scholar Citations”:

Google Scholar Citation Link

Clicking the link will bring up a list of sources that have cited this source! Chances are that one of those sources will be valuable to you.

You’ll want to look around the screens of your database because different databases show cites in different ways and in different places. For instance, an article from the Science Direct database, “Indiscriminate discrimination: A correspondence test for ethnic homophily in the Chicago labor market,” calls its list of sources that have cited this source, “Citing Articles,” i.e. articles that have cited this article. Click the dropdown menu to view them.

Citing Articles Drop Down Menu

Note that 24 sources have cited this article. Perhaps one of these will be key to your research paper’s success! Clicking further will give you compete details:

Keyword Tools

Now, if you look near the beginning of the article, “Name Discrimination in the Recruitment Process …” displayed in the database, you will see it lists “Keywords.”

Keywords List

Keywords give you important professional terms to use when for searching for sources. If you have had a hard time finding “hits,” then try searching using your source’s keywords alone and in different combinations with other words and phrases relevant to your topic. The reason this works is that sources will be grouped together by similar terms. 

Reminder: information will appear in different places in different database interfaces. 

4. Can’t Find a Full-Text Listing for Your Source? Try the “Find full-text Journals” tool

If you have found the title of an article from a search but are having trouble locating full text, search the library for the publication. At Indiana University Southeast, where I teach, the library’s home page has a link called “Find full-text Journals A-Z List”:

Find full-text Journals A-Z List screen shot

Click that link and type the name of the publication. A screen will open with the results. For example, the listing for the publication Labour Economics shows what database it can be found in, and what period of time articles have been digitized. In this case, 1995-present:

Full-Text Journal Search Result List

Often, results show that the article is listed in more than one database. Sometimes, the result will report that the listings are held in the library in print only. Then you can make a trip to the library and copy the article.

Clicking on a database link will open a special screen just for that publication, where you can either search for the article title within the publication, or click open the volume and issue number where it is stored and browse for the article.

The Takeaway

Experienced research writers have acquired tricks to make their researching efforts more efficient and relevant. These include:

  1. Use multiple databases
  2. Check your source’s citation lists
  3. Use database “Cited By” and “Keyword” or “Subject” tools
  4. Search for the publication in the “Full-Text” Journals tool when you can’t find a full-text listing

I hope these tips used by research writers help you find primary sources with less headaches and more relevance.

For several decades I have conducted writing workshops of all kinds, and for 14 years I have taught writing on the faculty of Indiana University Southeast. Now I have decided to give back for these opportunities by making my lessons available online. I hope you enjoy this lesson, and the other lessons here on my writing Web site, You may download and use any lesson here free of charge, provided you give credit as: © Copyright Michael Jackman. All Rights Reserved.

Although the lessons are free of charge, please help support all my work in writing and maintaining this site through a small contribution using the PayPal link on the top right of this post. Thank you for your support! – Michael

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