Hunt down the right research papers: five tips every researcher should know

This blog is part of our Research Smarter series, dedicated to helping you get familiar with your research field. Download our cheat sheet, which brings together top tips for finding relevant journals, papers, and authors in your field, sign up for our webinar on the same topic or read the related blog posts in our series, here.

Finding the relevant research in your field is critical to a successful research project, and yet it can be one of the hardest, most time-consuming challenges for academics. The research ecosystem is a sprawling, ever-changing landscape. Each field has a rich and divergent history, and new avenues for investigation are springing up every day.

These new developments are linked to the global sphere of human knowledge through the citation network. The constantly evolving connections link ideas, often in surprising ways, and allow for researchers to engage in what Eugene Garfield, the founder of Web of Science, termed “systematic serendipity.”

This blog outlines the steps every researcher should take to leverage the citation network to complete an in-depth, comprehensive search for literature in Web of Science. We share insights about how you can find an article, quickly assess its impact and 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. Choose the right database for your search
    2. Master the keyword search
    3. Filter your results and analyze for trends
    4. Explore the citation network
    5. Save your searches and set up alerts


    Watch the video below for a quick overview of the tips and tools we discuss:

    1. Choose the right database for your search

    The myriad search engines, databases and data repositories can be tricky for researchers to navigate as they all differ in reliability, relevancy and organization of data.   Web of Science stands out as the most powerful and trusted research engine, helping to connect ideas and advance scientific research across all fields and disciplines. It delivers best-in-class publication and citation data for confident discovery and assessment of research papers. It is also publisher-neutral, carefully-curated by a team of expert editors and consists of 19 different databases.

    The Web of Science Core Collection database is the single most authoritative source for researchers and organizations to track ideas across disciplines and time. It only includes journals that have met rigorous quality and impact criteria, and includes billions of cited references captured from globally significant journals, books and proceedings (check out its coverage).


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


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


    2. Master the keyword search

    A great deal of care and consideration is needed to find relevant and influential papers with your keyword search. Your chosen keywords or search phrases cannot be too inclusive or limiting, and they 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 on two other facets of the keyword search: boolean operators and wildcards. You can also view our Quick Reference Guide to help get you started with your literature search on Web of Science.

    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 databases do this. If you are conducting a literature review and require reproducible keyword search, it is best to steer clear of databases that lack overall transparency or frequently change their search algorithm.


    3. Filter your search results and analyze trends

    Grouping, ranking and analyzing the journal articles in your search results will optimize the overall relevancy and efficiency of your efforts. In Web of Science, researchers can cut through the data in a number of creative ways to 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.

    “Grouping, ranking and analyzing the journal articles in your search results will optimize the overall relevancy and efficiency of your efforts.”

    You can opt for basic filter and refine tools in Web of Science, including subject category, publication date and open access within your search results. This includes filtering by highly-cited research and hot research papers. Hot papers are journal articles that have accumulated rapid and significant numbers of citations over a short period of time. Learn more here.

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


    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, whereby your search through the literature can lead you to all sorts of surprising discoveries.

    Exploring the citation network helps you to:

    • Identify seminal research in any field by paying attention to the number of times a paper is cited.
    • Track the advancement of research as it progresses over time by analyzing the papers that cite the original source (this will also help you catch retractions and corrections to research).
    • Track the evolution of research backward in time by tracking the research that a particular paper cites.
    • View related references – if papers share citations (calculated from bibliographic coupling), they’re likely discussing similar topics.


Web of Science Core Collection indexes every piece of content cover-to-cover, creating a complete and certain view of more than 115 years of the highest-quality research. This depth of coverage enables you to uncover the historical trail of papers in your field, helping you visualize how discoveries unfold through time and where they might branch off into new areas of research.  You can achieve this in your search by ordering your result set by the papers’ 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 that are more than ten years old.”


5. Save your search and set up alerts

Save time and keep abreast of new research in your field by saving your searches and setting up email alerts. This means you can return to your search at any time, and stay up-to-date about new papers included in your search result. 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, but it really helps to get an idea of recent publications.”

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, papers and authors in your field, or sign up for our webinar on the same topic. You can also read the related blog posts in our Research Smarter series, here.

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