Research paper search: tips you'll wish you knew

This is our ultimate guide to helping you find a research paper in the Web of Science™ that’s relevant to your field of study. It forms part of our Research Smarter series

Finding relevant journal articles in your field is critical to a successful research project. Unfortunately, it can be one of the hardest, most time-consuming challenges for academics.

This blog outlines how you can leverage the Web of Science citation network to complete an in-depth, comprehensive search for literature. We share insights about how you can find a research paper and quickly assess its impact. We also explain how to create alerts to keep track of new papers in your field – whether you’re new to the topic or about to embark on a literature review.


    1. Choosing research databases for your search
    2. Master the keyword search to find relevant research papers
    3. Filter your results and analyze for trends
    4. Explore the citation network
    5. Save your searches and set up alerts for new journal articles


Don’t have time to read our blog? Download our cheat sheet or watch our on-demand webinar for tips to find a research paper, and hunt down authors and journals on the Web of Science. You can also watch the video below for a quick overview of the tips and tools we discuss in this blog:

Video to find a relevant journal article: Let's review.

1. Choosing research databases for your search

The myriad search engines, research databases and data repositories all differ in reliability, relevancy and organization of data. This can make it tricky to navigate and assess what’s best for your research at hand.

The Web of Science stands out the most powerful and trusted citation database. It helps you connect ideas and advance scientific research across all fields and disciplines. This is made possible with best-in-class publication and citation data for confident discovery and assessment of journal articles. The Web of Science is also publisher-neutral, carefully-curated by a team of expert editors and consists of 19 different research databases.

The Web of Science Core Collection™ is the single most authoritative source to find a research paper, discover top authors, and relevant journals. It only includes journals that have met rigorous quality and impact criteria, and it captures billions of cited references from globally significant journals, books and proceedings (check out its coverage). Researchers and organizations use this research database regularly to track ideas across disciplines and time.

Explore the Web of Science Core Collection

We recommend spending time exploring the Core Collection specifically because its advanced citation network features are unparalleled. If you are looking to do an exhaustive search of a specific field, you might want to switch to one of the field-specific databases like MEDLINE and INSPEC. You can also select “All databases” from the drop-down box on the main search page. This will cover all research databases your institution subscribes to. You can learn more in our Quick Reference Guide, here, or try it out today.

“We recommend spending time exploring the Core Collection specifically because its advanced citation network features are unparalleled.”

Image: Web of Science database


2. Master the keyword search to find relevant research papers

A great deal of care and consideration is needed to find relevant and influential journal articles with your keyword search.

Your chosen keywords or search phrases cannot be too inclusive or limiting. They also require constant iteration as you become more familiar with your research field. Read our guide on search tips to learn more, which also gives you a solid introduction to two other facets of the keyword search: boolean operators and wildcards. You can also view our Quick Reference Guide to help get you started on the Web of Science today.

It’s worth noting that a repeated keyword search in the same Web of Science database will retrieve almost identical results every time, save for newly-indexed research. Not all research databases do this. If you are conducting a literature review and require a reproducible keyword search, it is best to steer clear of certain databases. For example, a research database that lacks overall transparency or frequently changes its search algorithm may be detrimental to your research.

3. Filter your search results and analyze trends

Group, rank and analyze the research articles in your search results to optimize the relevancy and efficiency of your efforts. In the Web of Science, researchers can cut through the data in a number of creative ways. This will help you find the most influential papers, journals and authors. The filter and refine tools, as well as the Analyze Results feature, are all at your disposal for this.

“Group, rank and analyze the researh papers in your search results to optimize the relevancy and efficiency of your efforts.”

Highly Cited and Hot Papers in Field

Filter and Refine tools in the Web of Science

You can opt for basic filter and refine tools in the Web of Science. These include subject category, publication date and open access within your search results. You can also filter by highly-cited research and hot research papers. A hot paper is a journal article that has accumulated rapid and significant numbers of citations over a short period of time. Learn more about hot papers here.

The Analyze Results tool does much of this and more. It provides an interactive visualization of your results by the most prolific author, institution and funding agency, for example. This, combined, will help you understand trends across your field. Read our guide on using Analyze Results here, or watch the video below to learn more.

Video to find a relevant research paper: Discover trends

4. Explore the citation network

Keyword searches are essentially an a priori view of the literature. Citation-based searching, on the other hand, leads to “systematic serendipity”. This term was used by Eugene Garfield, the founder of Web of Science. New scientific developments are linked to the global sphere of human knowledge through the citation network. The constantly evolving connections link ideas and lead to systematic serendipity, allowing for all sorts of surprising discoveries.

Exploring the citation network helps you to:

  • Identify a seminal research paper in any field. Pay attention to the number of times a journal article is cited to achieve this.
  • Track the advancement of research as it progresses over time by analyzing the research papers that cite the original source. This will also help you catch retractions and corrections to research.
  • Track the evolution of a research paper backward in time by tracking the work that a particular journal article cites.
  • View related references. A research paper may share citations with another piece of work (calculated from bibliographic coupling). That means it’s likely discussing a similar topic.

Video: Cited Reference Searching to find relevant journal articles

Visualizing the history discoveries in the citation network

The Web of Science Core Collection indexes every piece of content cover-to-cover. This creates a complete and certain view of more than 115 years of the highest-quality journal articles. The depth of coverage enables you to uncover the historical trail of a research paper in your field. By doing so, it helps you visualize how discoveries unfold through time. You can also learn where they might branch off into new areas of research.  Achieve this in your search by ordering your result set by date of publication.

As PhD student Rachel Ragnhild Carlson (Stanford University) recently wrote in a column for Nature:[1]


”As a PhD student, I’ve learnt to rely not just on my Web of Science research but on numerous conversations with seasoned experts. And I make sure that my reading includes literature from previous decades, which often doesn’t rise to the top of a web search. This practice is reinforced by mentors in my lab, who often find research gems by filtering explicitly for studies greater than ten years old.”


5. Save your search and set up alerts for new journal articles

Save time and keep abreast of new journal articles in your field by saving your searches and setting up email alerts. This means you can return to your search at any time. You can also stay up-to-date about a new research paper included in your search result. This will help you find an article more easily in the future. Head over to Web of Science to try it out today.


“Everyone should set up email alerts with keywords for PubMed, Web of Science, etc. Those keyword lists will evolve and be fine-tuned over time. However, it really helps to get an idea of recent publications.”

Video: staying organized and up-to-date to find relevant research in your field

Stay connected

Interested in discovering more tips to really understand your research field? You can download our cheat sheet, which brings together top tips for finding relevant journals, research and authors in your field, or watch our on-demand webinar on the same topic. You can also read the related blog posts in our Research Smarter series, here.

And finally, subscribe to receive our latest news, resources and events to help make your research journey a smart one.

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[1] Ragnhild Carlson, R. 2020 ‘How Trump’s embattled environment agency prepared me for a PhD’, Nature 579, 458