Research Sources for Writers: A Guide to Backing up Your Words

Photo courtesy of chelseagirl

“When it comes to facts, I’ll listen to anyone’s facts. But when it comes to opinions, I’m taking my own.” - Andrew Grove (reportedly)

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Clay Collins of The Growing Life.

Good research stands to benefit any writer, and quality research often delineates the line between a quack claim and an insightful argument. Substantive research gives your writing teeth, enhances its impact, and lends your words an air of credibility. Furthermore, good research can be especially indispensible when bucking conventional wisdom or challenging existing dogma. Finally, research can help us develop better parameters around our arguments and help us clarify our own positions.

I’m going to assume that most writers accept the value of solid research, even if they don’t always have the will, knowledge, resources, or time to gather and use it in their own writing. Indeed, personal development writers typically know they can benefit from psychology and sociology research, political writers understand the need for economics and legal research, and fiction writers generally embrace myriad research sources, especially historical sources. The list of possible uses for good research can and does go on and on.

So with the need for solid research established, this article will focus on how to find (on the internet), obtain, and use free and credible research.

Going Beyond Google
Google can be a starting point for finding research, but getting to the good stuff usually requires going much, much deeper (it has to do with Google’s relevancy ranking). The good news is that people willing to go beyond an RSS reader and search engine can gain a competitive advantage over others who lack substantive research.

What About the Science Section of the New York Times and other Popular Periodicals?
The science sections of popular periodicals are good at distilling the essential nuggets of recent discoveries, but these sources generally cover only three or four of the most impressive findings per issue. You may happen to serendipitously stumble across a Times article that happens to be relevant to your writing project, but it’s unlikely.

Scholarly Journals: Where Much of the Good Research is Buried
Each year, university researchers publish hundreds of thousands of articles representing millions of hours and billions of dollars of work. Research articles written by university faculty (i.e. scholarly research) are typically of very high quality. It can take a researcher up to a year or more to collect, analyze, and meaningfully communicate their findings, and the publication process is arduous and competitive.

I hated reading academic journals when I was in college. They were cryptic, pretentious, and hard to digest. They still are, but I’m going to show you how to get needed information without having to first get a Ph.D. But before we go there, let’s first get some bad and good news out of the way . . .

The Bad News
The bad news is that research publications can be prohibitively expensive, and that research universities spend millions of dollars each year on access to academic databases. If an unaffiliated individual wants access to the PDF version of the average journal article they’ll probably have to pay a MINIMUM of $25 USD for something that might not even be helpful. So if you’re not a student, staff, or faculty at a research university, you’re going to have to get a little creative, which leads us to. . .

The Good News
The good news is that “open access” journals and other free research sources are on the rise (for more info see here). Open access journals are available “without financial or other barriers other than access to the internet itself.” Some of these journals require payment on behalf of the author while others are subsidized. As stated by the prestigious Journal PLoS Biology, open access means that “everyone, everywhere can read, redistribute and reuse . . . research without cost.” Open access journals are increasing in popularity and prestige. Public Library of Science Journals (PLoS) Journals, for example, are regularly covered by news companies such as Reuters, BBC, and the New York Times, to name just a few. (Personal note: I recently decided to publish an article in an open access journal, and this decision has lead to increased usage and citations).

Another bit of great news is that librarians at most publicly funded universities (and many librarians at private universities) are willing to help almost anyone who contacts them via phone, email, or chat client, and provide advice on how to find free research materials. Since most large universities have libraries specifically dedicated to the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, respectively, you can manage to find an expert in a given field if you call the right library; these librarians may not be able to email you copyrighted materials, but they often can provide summary paragraphs or give you critical details. Many academic librarians not only have masters degrees in library and information studies, but also a second graduate degree (often a Ph.D.) in their specialty area. I’ve called universities such as Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Georgetown University and always receive help — I’m also never questioned about my institutional affiliation.

How I Look for Research
I’ve found that the best time to look for research is right after I’ve generated an idea for a new article and have specific questions I want answered. To save time, I would highly recommend that you wait until you’ve formulated clear questions before going through research literature. (A reasonable person, however, might disagree with me on this).

Research Sources for Writers
Without further ado, here are some of my favorite research starting points and information gateways:

Free Full-Text and Open Access Journal Directories and Databases

  • Directory of Open Access Journals: This is the biggie and includes thousands of free, full text, quality journals. Right now, the directory lists 3,274 journals; 1061 of these journals are full-text searchable at the article level.
  • Open J-Gate: Open J-Gate indexes articles from 4377 academic, research, and industry journals. Approximately 2340 of these journals are peer-reviewed academic publications.
  • Biomed Central Open Access Journals: Offers a wide array of open access science journals.
  • PubMed: This is the #1 place to go on the internet for health & science research of all kinds and varieties (mental health, psychology, psychiatry, pharmaceutical sciences, nutrition, public health, and alternative medicine are among the many topics covered). PubMed can take a bit of time to learn but it’s well worth the effort. Because of a recent law, all research funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health must be deposited in PubMed and accessible to everyone. Not all resources listed in PubMed, however, are freely available, but many of them are.
  • Directory of Open Access Repositories: A Large and exhaustive list of open access repositories worldwide.
  • FindArticles: FindArticles has article text of about 500 print periodicals with coverage dating back to 1998. It is freely available on the Web.

Abstract Databases
The following resources allow you to access (sometimes) lengthy journal abstracts, although access to the full articles may require a fee. It’s worth noting that several abstracts may collectively provide enough information for your writing piece.

  • ERIC: Provides access to more than 1.2 million bibliographic records of journal articles.
  • Google Scholar: Easy to use and intuitive, but not exhaustive.
  • Acrgricola: Provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Agriculture Catalog provides citations to agricultural literature.

Note: If you find an abstract of an article that you really want but can’t pay for, you can contact the author and request a pre-print copy. I’ve done this on several occasions and usually receive an emailed PDF copy within days, no questions asked.

Reference and Other

  • Radical Reference: Run by a volunteer group of politically active librarians who are proponents of freedom of information issues, radical reference will help nearly everyone find information. The reference librarians who run Radical Reference often have access to expensive research databases and can often provide you with the information you need, even if they can’t email you an entire article.
  • The Internet Public Library: The Internet Public Library was founded by a class at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. It is now being developed and maintained by a consortium of colleges and universities.

Good luck! And don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Clay Collins writes at The Growing Life. For an example of how he’s recently used research in his own writing, see Confident Goal Setting: How to Pick Up a Cow, Daily.

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49 Responses to “Research Sources for Writers: A Guide to Backing up Your Words”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Tim Brownson says:

    Great job Clay, this is a top quality article and I hope it gets round cyber space quickly.

  2. Great post, Clay! I second that you need to have fairly clear questions before consulting the academic journals–there is far too much information available just to peruse. Not that perusing is bad, but you’ll never actually finish and you’ll bring home 153 collected books of journals. Keep up the great work.

    Leo, get back to writing on your book.

  3. Allena says:

    Thank you so much for such a cohesive, helpful article. Here’s my one secret weapon: my alma mater seems to allow alumni to keep the use of their proxy server, meaning I can access any electronic collection that the library can acess, all from my home computer with my old college login :) — without paying for reprints, memberships, etc.

  4. Amy says:

    1. Many local libraries provide access to common scholarly databases (like JSTOR) from a designated computer in the library.

    2. Many universities provide access to their collections to community members for free or for a nominal charge (usually on more limited hours than students, though); some even provide borrowing privileges for a reasonable fee.

    3. Even if your local library’s collection is very limited, you will be amazed at what librarians can obtain for you through Inter-Library Loan. You’ll need patience though, and it helps to build up a good rapport with your librarian, since you’ll be asking them to go out of your way for them.

  5. Very impressive list! An excellent post. Thanks for taking the time to point out these resources.

  6. WhitneyDT says:

    I would also recommend a visit to your local public library. Larger public libraries often have database collections that rival small to mid-sized universities. In addition, you’ll find librarians–actual people who actually want to help you with your project. We have a dedicated staff who love connecting people with information–and most other libraries do, too.

  7. Clay, it’s great to see you here and what a useful article and writer’s resource. I’ll be saving this to for future reference.


  8. Terrific post, Clay – it’s phenomenal to find how many resources are out there for us writers…

  9. I’d also recommend It really saved me while writing my thesis last year!

  10. René Garcia says:

    Ha! Awesome. As a writer I understand how important it is to perform due diligence in research. Yet, it’s my least favorite thing to do. Good post and thanks for the info.


  11. @Everyone: Thank you for adding so many good tips. I’ve been generally impressed with the breadth of knowledge and collective expertise of the WTD community. Your responses here are no exception.

    @WhitneyDT: I’m glad a librarian posted a response. Thanks for the comment.

  12. Lise says:

    Thanks for compiling this excellent resource, Clay. Right now I have a number of university friends I can count on to help me out when I need to do research, but I suspect this won’t always be the case.

    Also, you touch on a much bigger issue, which is the fact that scholarly research is relatively inaccessible to individuals not associated with institutions. This makes the academic ivory tower more of a truth than a metaphor, alas, and dissociates research from the common person. Let’s hope that more authors and journal editors decide to participate in these open access movements.

  13. Rick says:

    I have been researching ideas for my a new site I have in development. I hadn’t stumbled across PubMed before. Thanks for the tip. I’m sure it will be a great resource.


  14. Bill Sodeman says:

    This is an excellent article that pulls together many topics I discuss in my graduate courses. Great job, Clay!

  15. very, very helpful, thank you!

  16. This is a great article. I am lucky because I am have access to Proquest. You gave a lot of resources I never thought about in a long time. Thanks!

  17. Kathryn says:

    Great post! It’s so easy to get lazy and just make Google and wikipedia your be-all-and-end-all research sources but they’re definitely not the best sources out there. Quality writing relies on quality research and to do that, you need to know where to find it!

  18. Clay,

    What an awesome list of resources. This post is definitely worth bookmarking for my research projects.

    Thank you so much!

  19. Cheryl says:

    In a previous life I worked as an interlibrary loan tech for a medical library and before that a university library. Ten years ago I changed careers to IT and interestingly, I lost touch with libraries. Now that I’m writing I really feel the need for good research resources. Recently I purchased a year’s subscription to Highbeam on the recommendation of someone I trust.

    I think it’s a good resource, but I don’t know if I’ll continue to subscribe in the future as I have more time to devote myself to writing (rather than writing in between breaths of working at a job). I.e., I’m sure looking forward to the day when this is my full time job.

  20. Ivan says:

    Thanks a million. Exactly what I needed.

  21. Steven says: is an e-print service in the fields of physics, mathematics, non-linear science, computer science, quantitative biology and statistics.

    I’ve used it a lot and always wondered if other fields had something similar. In any case, it seemed like something that should be mentioned in this discussion.

  22. Tom Colvin says:

    Clay, as a researcher/writer expat living outside of the US, I find your list particularly helpful. I, of course, do not have access to major libraries with quick access to the material I need. Normally, I layover in San Francisco or Los Angeles when I travel between the Philippines and Mexico, just to spend 4-5 days at a university library. The discovery of your list, with much that I haven’t known about, will certainly be helpful.

    I’ll be making a post to my blog about this article, as many of my readers will find it helpful.

  23. Nathan says:

    We miss your posts, folks. Will we see more WriteToDone soon?

  24. Andrea says:

    anybody home???

  25. Fran Macdonald says:

    Brilliant and useful article.

  26. Can’t wait to try these sites out, I’ve been spending way to much time using google to look for reputable research.

  27. Dennis Morrow says:

    Great reference article. Thought you might want to include which lists all bills introduced or passed by the U.S. House and Senate.

  28. eorganics says:

    Thank you so much for this great post, it is very useful.

  29. Very useful indeed. Thanks for sharing

  30. upen says:

    This is really an awesome reading. Thanks a lot for sharing this

  31. porno says:

    Clay, as a researcher/writer expat living outside of the US, I find your list particularly helpful. I, of course, do not have access to major libraries with quick access to the material I need. Normally, I layover in San Francisco or Los Angeles when I travel between the Philippines and Mexico, just to spend 4-5 days at a university library

  32. Christina Fortune says:

    Hello, I am a second year Interior Design studnt in MI. At thiis point of my education Iam learning about the greatnest of Evidence Based Design. I respect it all ready just for its name. The ideal that my clients will more educated and well advised about the choices made to provide them with exspert information about what is best for their space sends chills downmy back. This will be my first attemped at it and already I am having a time of it. Although I will visit my library for assistance really soon I had hoped that the Internet will privide accredited information for me to use. Problem is ,,,Research is not my cup of tea. Honestly if i could fine a site that will provide me with information on my exact topic ( Bamboo flooring in hair salons, can it stand up?) i will be a happy camper. HELP!!!