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BIOLOGY 171 Research Guide: Finding Primary Literature

Course guide for the essay assignment for BIOLOGY 171 (Introductory Biology: Ecology and Evolution), Fall 2015, with Professors Cindee Giffen and Jo Kurdziel.

How do I get the full text of an article?

To find the full text of an article, just look for the  logo.  MGetIt is a tool that the Library inserts into our subscription databases to link them with the publisher-provided full text articles.  If the Library doesn't have access to an electronic version of your article, MGetIt can also search Mirlyn for the print version of the journal, or launch an Interlibrary Loan request.  For more information about MGetIt, check out UGL's MGetIt quickstart.

What if I already have a citation?

If you've already got an article citation from another source, there are a couple of ways to find the article:

-If you've got a journal name, a publication date or volume/issue number, and a page number, you can use the MGetIt Citation Linker to find the article.  Just fill in the form with all of the available information and click "Search"!

-If you're missing some of the publication information, but you have an author name and an article title, try using the ArticlesPlus advanced search.  Use the "Author" and "Title" options from the search box pull-down menus, and try using just the author's last name.

Finding Primary Literature

For primary literature in biology, there are several useful indexes that you could search:

Web of Science.  The standard science literature index and abstract database, covering biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, and more.

Biosis.  Related to Web of Science, but with a more specific focus on biology.  This is useful, because the Biosis subject area terms provide more specificity for biology topics than the subject terms in Web of Science, but also occasionally deceptive, since some biology-adjacent areas (paleontology and related fields, for example) are not well represented in Biosis.

Scopus.  A newer competitor to Web of Science; they overlap strongly in their content, but each one contains journal material that isn't found in the other, and their interfaces have some significant differences from each other.  Scopus also has less historical depth than Web of Science, although Elsevier is actively adding older articles.

In all of these databases, try doing the following for better results:

-Use keywords.  All of these databases list relevant keywords for each article, if you click through to the article's full description page.  After finding two or three articles that you like, check to see if they have any keywords in common, and try doing a new search for those words, or adding them to your current search.

-Limit by subject area.  The refine-results panels (to the left of the screen in Web of Science and Biosis; above your search results in Scopus) allow you to quickly narrow your results list using a number of parameters.  The subject area terms provide a quick way to quickly tease out a smaller set of results based on disciplinary groupings: Web of Science, for example, has listings for "evolutionary biology" and "ecology."

-Limit by year.  You can specify a range of years (2005-2010, for example) in your initial search, but you'll need to select years individually to limit a search you've already run in these databases.  Remember that your assignment specifies that you must use literature published in 2000 or later.

Reading Primary Literature

Primary scientific literature follows a loose convention for structure; papers generally include:

  • an introduction outlining the background of the research question
  • a materials and methods section providing details of the experiments performed
  • a results section presenting the outcomes of those experiments
  • a discussion section which summarizes the experimental findings, places them in context of other research, and perhaps suggests avenues for further research
  • a references section providing the citation information for the literature cited in the paper

Not all journals make these divisions explicit: articles in Science, for example, have no section headings, and recently have begun to provide materials and methods only in a "supporting online material" section of their website.  Other journals rearrange the order of sections, usually by placing the materials and methods toward the end of the paper rather than immediately following the introduction.  Regardless, you should be able to identify these divisions of information in every primary research article.

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