Finding Research Articles

How to quickly find (and cite!) a scholarly Social Work article
by Melanie Sage, LICSW, PhD, University of North Dakota School of Social Work

Your instructor has asked you to write a paper and to include scholarly references, but your Google search is not turning up what you need, and you’ve procrastinated. A recent study* suggests most college students have a difficult time conducting a literature search.   But do not abandon hope! Use these tips instead, ordered from easiest to most complex.

1.       Ask a librarian. They are not just there to point you toward a bookshelf. Librarians have academic training in research, and will often provide one-on-one help to get you what you need. Don’t forget to bring a copy of your assignment with you! They can show you how to make the very best use of the library catalog, both online and on the shelf, and how to evaluate your search results. (If you need distance help, your college or local library may even have an “ask a librarian” text or chat option, and you can even use the phone!)

2.       Use Google Scholar.
Step a:  If you are pretty comfortable in Google search, check out Google Scholar. Just type in your regular search terms (see for some good basic search tips).  After you type in your search keywords (i.e.  if you type the words "united states" abuse OR neglect –animals, this tells Google to find only articles that mention either abuse or neglect, but not of animals, and only articles that mention United States), hit “more” in the top bar, and select “scholar” from the drag down menu.

Step b: Your instructor probably wants you to focus on the most recent articles so that the research is relevant. Use the drag down bar to change the year to find only articles that fall within the last three years or so. This will narrow your results.  In the right column there is a list of places to find full pdf’s of the articles. If you are using the internet on campus, you will probably be linked directly to your university’s electronic holding of the article. This is an easy way to search across many databases at once.  Additionally, the article may exist at another website.  *note: This search may turn up dissertations or non-peer reviewed articles. You must still apply judgment about the article source.

3.       Use a library database. You can log on from campus or from home. Go to the library website, and find the databases link. The UND library search uses “Academic Search Premier” by default unless you tell it you want to look somewhere else. Consider “Social Work Abstracts” or “PsychoInfo” for searches related to behavioral health. The database search page may include a box for “peer reviewed articles” and clicking it will help limit your search. Explore the advanced search options for more ways to limit your search.

Now cite your article!
1.       Most databases are now including a “cite this” button next to the article link. We cite using APA formatting.  Look to see if there is a citation link or option to export your citation.

2.       If that doesn’t work, you can use an online citation utility for help.  My very favorite "helper" program is called Zotero.  Check out my Zotero how-to video here.

3.       Another university-supported option is RefWorks. This is an online research management, writing and collaboration tool which is designed to help easily gather, manage, store and share all types of information, as well as generate citations and bibliographies. When accessing an article or journal you have the option to save it in a folder which can then be exported directly to RefWorks to create citations or bibliographies in any format (APA, MLA, Etc..). A new account can be created by accessing RefWorks on the Chester Fritz Library,  site under Quick Links. You can also consult with a librarian on how to get started and access the many features and benefits of this program. (I prefer Zotero, but some people prefer RefWorks).

4.       Consult the web. Purdue maintains a handy APA 6th Edition citation guide here:, and offers many examples, including how to handle in-text references. Even if you use a shortcut, you should know the rules of citation. Bookmark this as a guide.

Search Tips
If you are having a difficult time with your search, consider your keywords. If you find only one article you like, explore the text for other words that seem related to your topic. Some articles even have related keyword lists posted in the database search results. Group your keywords together. For instance, a Google search of “child abuse” will be more effective than the same search without the quotation marks.

If your topic is indeed rarely discussed, try the traditional Google search engine to see who is talking about the issue. Add PhD to the search line; there may be someone who is researching the topic and has a list of publications. There may also be congressional reports or other non peer-reviewed articles on the topic. It’s ok to say that there is not much written on the topic (if that is true) and use this “gray literature” to support your arguments, and use related peer reviewed articles to add extra information.  

Your professor will help you. We would much rather you persist on a social work topic of interest than change to a topic because literature is easier to locate. Social workers are ethically obligated to find and use research to improve practice.