What are scientific journal articles and how do I find them?
The challenge of reading a scientific article is worth the effort when you consider that all of the major journals contain articles that have been appraised by experts prior to being accepted for publication. This process—called peer-review—helps ensure that published results are scientifically valid and grounded in evidence, not just reflecting someone’s political agenda or wishful thinking.
Scientific journals publish a few types of pieces. The two most common are the research article and the review article. A research article (which can also appear in a shorter form called a “letter” or a “research note”) is peer-reviewed and presents a complete description of a new research finding, and typically follows a standard format (read more about this format on the next page). A review compiles the results of many different studies on a topic into an overview of that field. Some journals are dedicated exclusively to publishing review articles (examples include the Current Opinion series, the Nature Reviews series and the Trends series), but review articles can appear in almost any research journal.
Some journals are published weekly, some monthly and some at other regular intervals. With the prevalence of the Internet, some publications now post significant research findings as soon as they are available, before the journal comes out in print.
In general, finding published information begins with a search. Since you are looking specifically for information about scientific research, there are more direct ways to find the articles you want than using Internet search engines like Google or Yahoo.
PubMed allows you to search MEDLINE, the National Library of Medicine’s database. MEDLINE contains more than 15 million references from thousands of worldwide biomedical journals. PubMed is a great way to dive quickly into the scientific literature. In general, PubMed displays the title, authors and an abstract—or short description—of an article. It also usually provides a link to a site with the full text of the article (some full-text options are free, but many require a journal subscription or a fee).
ScienceDirect offers free searching of more than seven million journal and book articles with links to the full text (some are free, but many charge to access the article). You can view the abstracts for free. When searching this database, you can select topic areas from a pull-down list, including “Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology,” “Immunology and Microbiology” and “Medicine and Dentistry.”
HighWire Press claims to be the largest collection of free full-text science in the world. It provides access to nearly 900 journals, including some that have free trial periods and many that have free back issues. If the article you want is not free, it is offered as a pay-per-view option.
Once you start searching, you will begin to get an idea of the major journals that are publishing information about your topic. Going directly to the journals’ websites can yield useful information, especially once you have done preliminary searches and have a better idea of what you are looking for in a field. The different types of journals that may be useful to you include:
Most journals require a subscription fee. Some have a policy allowing limited complimentary access—the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, lets you view articles more than six months old for free.
There is currently a movement among some scientists to provide free access to research findings. The journals of the Public Library of Science, known as PLoS, do just that. The most relevant to medical topics are PLoS Medicine and the recently launched PLoS Clinical Trials.
If you live near a state medical school library, it’s probably worth a visit, since these libraries tend to have free public access to many medical journals.
If you are having trouble finding a copy of an article, one possibility is to contact the authors themselves. An often more reliable way is to go through the press office of the authors’ university or hospital. You can locate these offices by going to an institution’s main website and searching for the term “communications,” “public relations” or “news.” A public information officer can often help you track down a copy of an article, either in print or as an electronic document. This person can also help relay messages to a researcher or a doctor.
Next: How to read and assess research articles