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BSCI 1510L Literature and Stats Guide: 2.4 Keyword Searches

Introduction to Biological Sciences lab, first semester

2.4 Keyword Searches

The Abstract section of scientific papers plays an important role in searching for relevant articles.  As noted earlier, the whole abstract of most papers have been entered into electronic databases, so while conducting a search you can visually scan the abstracts of promising search hits to determine whether that paper is of potential interest.  Because all of the words of abstracts are in the database, a search for keywords can locate abstracts that contain those words, indicating that the associated paper is a candidate for further examination.

2.4.1 Web of Science

Accessing Web of Science is described in section 2.2.4.  The basic Search function searches for specified words ("search terms") in the abstracts or titles of biological journals.  When you arrive at the Web of Knowledge site, it should default to the search page.  The simplest way to search is to enter words in a search box under "Topic".  If you want the search to include variant endings for a word, you can use the "wild card" character "*".  Thus, "bacteri*" will search for "bacteria", "bacterial", and "bactericidal".  A search for antibacterial soap produced the following results:

This search produced 191 hits on 20 pages.  Clicking on the title link takes you to the abstract (if it is a paper) and other relevant publication information.  Alternatively, you can click the View Abstract link to expand an abstract-viewing window.  At this point, you have two choices.  You can look at all 191 hits, or you can try to further reduce the number of hits by adding additional criteria.  For example, if you enter hand washing in the "Search within results for:" box, the number of hits drops down to 32, a more reasonable result.  Of course, there is the possibility that you will miss an important paper that doesn't happen to have the words antibacterial, hand, washing, or soap in the title, abstract, or list of key words.  You can also require two or more words to be adjacent and in the order that you specify by placing them in quotation marks.  Note that sometimes the hits include references to meeting presentations or articles in languages other than English, so not every reference will produce papers that are easily read.  You can restrict results to a particular time period, particular journals, or particular authors by using the "Refine Results" checkboxes in the navigation pane at the left side of the page. 

After looking at the titles of a number of papers and abstracts of several papers that look relevant, you should have an idea of whether this line of searching is going to be fruitful or whether it would be better to start over using different search terms.  Selecting effective search terms is an art -- use words that are too common and you get more hits than you can examine, but choose words that are too specific and you will get few or no hits.

2.4.2 PubMed

The Entrez search interface of the NCBI website can also be used to conduct a keyword search of articles in PubMed and PubMed Central (Section 2.2.3).  The method is conceptually similar to Web of Science.

Search terms are entered in the box at the top of the page, with or without quotations marks depending on whether you want to require the words to be adjacent.  A more sophisticated search can be made by clicking on the Advanced link below the search box.  This allows you to restrict the search terms to particular fields, such as author, title, journal, etc.   To further reduce the number of hits, you can choose one or more of the filter links in the navigation pane to the left of the results. 

In the search results, clicking on the article name brings up the article abstract.  Expanding the LinkOut - more resources section displays freely available full text sources of the paper (if any).

2.4.3 Google Scholar

Because of the familiarity of Google to most Web users, many students will begin a literature search by conducting a generic Google search.  Although this will often produce interesting and informative results, because of the poor quality control and lack of persistence of generic web pages, most results are not suitable as background for scientific work and publication.  However, Google has a tool called Google Scholar which will restrict the search results to scholarly works, including many journal articles. 

To access Google Scholar, go to .  The entry interface provides the typical simple Google search box with the option to include or exclude patents and legal documents.  Searching for "antibacterial soap" produces about 43,000 results.  However, Google does a pretty good job of moving the most relevant hits to the first page.  Depending on the search topic, the results may degenerate into more random articles which are not from scientific journals after several pages.  As was the case with the other search tools, the results can be limited by clicking on filters in the left pane of the browser window.  You can pick a particular date range and you can also eliminate uses of the search terms in citations.  This is particularly useful when searching for authors.  If the "include citations" check box is checked, papers which have cited the author will also come up. 

To conduct a more sophisticated search, click on the hamburger menu (three horizontal bars) at the upper left of the page to open a panel that will offer the option of Advanced Search.  Compared to the previously-discussed search tools, the Advanced Search in Google Scholar is rather limited.  However, it does allow you to screen for particular authors or journals as well as date ranges.  For example, searching for "CJ Baskauf" results in about 216 hits where "CJ Baskauf" or just "Baskauf" occurs somewhere in the item.  Restricting the search to articles authored by CJ Baskauf or which contain citations to articles authored by CJ Baskauf produces 11 hits, while excluding citations produces 6. 

When you click on a link to an article, it should take you to either the article itself or a web page that describes how to access the article.  There are several possibilities.  The article may be freely available as full text.  If you are using a computer with a Vanderbilt IP address, the article may be available to you as full text because the Vanderbilt library has paid for a subscription to the journal or to a provider such as JSTOR through which Vanderbilt has purchased access.  Another possibility is that full text is available through payment of a fee. Finally, the article may not be available electronically and require you to acquire a copy by looking up the paper journal in the library or by requesting it through Interlibrary Loan.