Toolkit for Searching for Research Information
Step 4b: Understand Your Google Scholar Results

Step 4b: Understand Your Google Scholar Results

Key Points

  • Use Google Scholar when searching for academic information.
  • Google Scholar results are very different from those found searching Google.
  • Google Scholar finds articles published in academic journals – both subscription (paid) and open access (free), citations, as well as books, conference proceedings, white papers, theses and dissertations, patents, and more, published across a multidisciplinary landscape.

A Google Scholar search will find many different types of results. How do you know what you are looking at? Let’s take a look using the results of the following search: vaccines autism, as an example (see live search). The examples below can be found on the first two pages of the Google results list.

Citations

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Citation is a bibliographic reference that gives you information about a publication. In a citation, you will find the following: title, author, date of publication and publication source (typically a journal).

When you find a [CITATION] in your Google Scholar results, it means that Google was unable to find the article online, but knows the article exists, as it has been mentioned in other academic publications.

If you find a citation that is very relevant to your search, you can use the information it has to search databases available in your public or academic library (if you have access to one), in order to find the full article.

Academic Journal Articles

Academic journal articles are highly specialized, and use discipline-specific words to talk about research. Some are peer-reviewed, which means that before the article is published, it is read and reviewed by subject specialists to make sure the information is valid and of interest to the professional community.

Here is how you can recognize an academic article:/p>

  • Length
    Academic articles tend to be long. They are usually text-heavy, and include tables, data and no illustrations.
  • Language
    Academic articles use language specific to the subject area. This language is very specialized and academic and may not be easily understood by the general public.
  • Authors
    All academic journals clearly show who the authors are and their professional backgrounds.
  • Abstract
    Every academic article has an abstract, which is a short description, or summary, of what the article is about.
  • Sections
    Academic articles are divided into clearly identified sections. Most have an Introduction and a Conclusion, with other section headings specific to information presented.
  • Research and Data
    Every academic article mentions other research done on the topic and shows data and figures specific to new research carried out by the authors.
  • Citations and References
    As you read through an academic article, you will see many in-text citations in the body of the article. These in-text citations link directly to the list of references at the end of the article. References tell you, the reader, where some of the information in the article came from, and give you access to more research on the topic.
  • Appendices
    Some academic articles include appendices (plural of appendix). An example of an appendix could be the survey tool used to collect information for the article, or a raw data set collected while doing research.

Open Access Academic Journals

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Open access journals are free to access, which means you will be able to read the article right away. In open access publications the reader does not have to pay any fees in order to read articles published by the journal. This allows more people to have access to academic research.

Open access journals are published by well-established publishers, for example: Oxford University Press – Oxford Open, Wiley – Wiley Open Access, as well as newly established open access publishers.

When working with an open access journal, double check its background (look at the About/About Us, For Authors, Subscription pages), to find out as much as you can about how the journal accepts new articles and what the peer-review process is, to ensure that the information you are reading is reliable.

You can also consult DOAJ, Directory of Open Access Journals, that indexes reliable open access journals. Note that this index does not list all open access publications. You can also look at this checklist to help identify questionable, or predatory open access journals.

Subscription Based Academic Journals

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Google Scholar will also find articles published in subscription-based journals. Subscription requires someone to pay for access. Academic and public libraries, as well as some professional organizations and associations, have access to a selection of subscription-based academic journals through various databases (general databases such as Academic Search Premier, or more specialized ones such as CINAHL).

If you do not have access to any of the above, you can also purchase access to the article yourself. Pricing will depend on the level of access to the article (for example, temporary vs. permanent with unlimited download options).

Books

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Google Scholar finds both fully digitized books, as well as books with partial content access. The above is an example of a fully digitized book, accessible online. When you open the book you will find your search terms highlighted, with digital “bookmarks” added throughout the scroll bar, linking you to pages that mention your keywords. This is convenient if you are quickly scanning through the book to see if it would be relevant.

Other Types Of Results

Your search will always dictate the type of information you find in Google Scholar. In addition to the above-mentioned, Google Scholar indexes the following types of resources from academic publishers, professional organizations, university digital archives and open-access content:

  • Conference proceedings
  • White papers
  • Pre-published material
  • Theses and Dissertations
  • Patents 
  • Court opinions

For a full scope of School Scholar content coverage, refer to the Content Coverage document developed by Google.