Secret Search tips from an Information Sleuth

Sometimes an article can be very tricky to track down. It might be from an obscure journal, or maybe from something old enough that no one carries it any more. That may require tracking down a print version hidden away in some library’s archives, but sometimes some creative searching online can provide surprising results.

Limit where you look

Sometimes too much is just as bad as not enough. If you find yourself searching for an article title on a web search engine you may get hundreds or thousands of results. Most of us will scan the first page, and maybe the second, but are quick to give up after that. 

A lot of the time, articles will be published as a PDF, so limit your search to that file format by either using the advanced search function

Or use the limiter “filetype” in the search field.

Change where you are looking

Most articles are often published as part of a journal. That means you might limit your search to libraries or sites that have access to that publication. If you separate the article from the journal, you can look in unusual places that have already uploaded or published that article separate from its original publication.

When you browse the search results, try looking at academic websites. Again, you can use the advanced search, or use the limiter “site:” and limit to academic domains such as “.edu.” Sometimes universities publish their syllabi online and will link to any reading or documents for a course. Often they link to paywall sources, but it’s worth a look because when there is no online resource the organization may upload the document itself, or provide alternative sites.

Let someone do the looking for you

Those alternative sites may lead you to sites that may have already compiled or collected documents and journals you are looking for. If I haven’t found the specific article I am looking for, I may try to search by journal issue or volume. Article titles aren’t always indexed so once you’ve narrowed your search, you can widen it again when you’ve found a resource that is more specific to your interest. 

There are a few popular sites like SSRN, but I am always stumbling upon other sites that provide other avenues of searching. These can often be open-access, but they may also have a soft paywall that requires signing up, or using a free trial.

Look out

The internet is an amazing resource but just like every other tool, it can be used to harm as well. A lot of sites use your google search to create a link that may look like exactly what you are looking for but may contain a virus or spam. Be careful what you are downloading. Watch for unusual file types such as .exe or suspicious looking sites.

As an information professional I am an advocate for open information, but I am always mindful of copyright restrictions. Fair use allows some leeway when sharing articles and texts, but it may not always be clear where that leeway ends.

Some sites such as Sci-Hub might be a bit of a grey area, and I tend to err on the side of caution, so use reputable sites as much as you can.

Bonus tip

One piece of advice I haven’t used much but is worth a shot is contacting the author directly. Some authors will provide their articles for free upon request. So if they are a contemporary author, try giving them a search on LinkedIn or at their organization.

Of course sometimes no matter how hard you look, you just can’t find what you are looking for. Sometimes you need a fresh pair of eyes. Even if you try thinking outside the box, everyone has their own way of looking at things. So ask someone else to give it a gander, they may be able to see things from a different perspective. They can be colleagues, or professional listservs, or even your friendly library.

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