Google Scholar: How to use the database of academic literature for research, citations, alerts, and more

Google Scholar: How to use the database of academic literature for research, citations, alerts, and more

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A woman works on a laptop in a library, surrounded by books.
Google Scholar is a search engine specifically for academic literature, featuring journal articles, scholarly books, and more.

  • Google Scholar is a searchable database of academic literature.
  • It connects users with studies and journal articles on nearly any topic of scholarly interest.
  • Google Scholar is free to search, but some of the results may require payment or membership to read.

Google Scholar is a search engine Google created to parse though a massive database of scholarly literature, looking for the best matches for your search terms.

Google Scholar was released in beta form in late 2004, and soon used far and wide by students, researchers, authors, and others. The search engine not only grants users to access vast troves of information, but it also makes it easy to cross reference things against other sources and keep up with the latest research as it is published.

And what you won’t get on Google Scholar are search results from non-academic sources like personal blogs, social media posts, YouTube videos, or other less substantive and reliable sources. 

If you want fun and games, go with Google Games; if you want scholarly research, stick with Google Scholar.

Using Google Scholar, found at scholar.google.com, you can access these kinds of sources (and more):

  • Journals
  • Conference papers
  • Academic books
  • Pre-prints
  • Theses and dissertations
  • Abstracts
  • Technical reports
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Here’s everything you need to know about the powerful research tool:

How to use Google Scholar

Anyone can access the search database. And while it’s built with college and grad students, researchers, and other academics in mind, anyone can reap its benefits.

A screenshot of Google Scholar's home page shows an empty search bar and the phrase "Stand on the shoulders of giants" underneath.
Type any academic topic into the search bar to get started with Google Scholar.

Here are just a few examples of what you can do through Google Scholar: 

  • Create alerts. Google Scholar is for creating a body of research around a topic of interest, such as global warming, let’s say. Much like with the standard Google Alerts, you can create alerts for the topic so you’re always up-to-date on the latest info.
  • Explore related works. You can gain deeper knowledge of any topic in which you’re interested by exploring related citations, authors, and publications, as identified by Google Scholar.
  • Check out the References section. Accessing an article’s References section can help you branch out your research to see what sources an author used for their paper. 
  • Save articles to your library. Saving your searches to your Google Scholar library helps you organize and keep track of your favorite results. 
  • Cite articles in your preferred format. On the search results page, click the Cite button; the pop-up window will offer citations ready in whichever style you need, like MLA, APA, and Chicago.
A screenshot of the Google Scholar results page for the search query "biomechanics of running" shows the "Cite" button under an article emphasized with a red box and arrow.
Click “cite” and a pop-up window will give you the citation in different styles.

Accessing information 

Google Scholar is free to use as a search tool. However, since it pulls information from many sources, it’s possible that some of the results you pull up will require a login or even a payment to access the full information.

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Whether an article is free depends on a variety of factors, like the publication and its funding agency mandates. Go to the Public Access section of the Google Scholar profile to view its mandates — if a free version is available, you’ll see an HTML or PDF link on the right side. 

Still, descriptions or abstracts are typically free and provide an overview of the article’s content so you can make an informed decision about whether to spend money. 

Remember that not all scholarly research is created equal — different journals have different standards for publication. Not every article listed on Google Scholar will be peer-reviewed (a peer review is when the author’s fellow researchers and scholars in the same field review the article’s content for research quality). 

To find out whether a research article on Google Scholar is peer-reviewed, the best strategy is to visit the website of the journal the article is published in. Most peer-reviewed journals will explicitly state they are peer-reviewed.

Search tips and best practices 

  • Sort your searches by date (or specify a starting date) to find the newest, most relevant data. At the top left corner of the search results page, you can choose to search for articles published “Any time,” since a given year, or in a custom range of year — say between 2015 and 2020, were you to want to research a topic without the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic coloring it. 
  • Look out for the keywords “all versions,” “related articles,” and “cited by” to include free versions of articles in your search results; you should look for PDFs and postings by libraries.
  • Look through an article’s references to gain a deeper understanding of a topic.
  • Check out metrics like the h-index to see the output and impact of a researcher or publication.
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Overall, Google Scholar provides an excellent avenue into scholarly research, and while it does have its drawbacks, it’s a tool that can be used to help clarify, explore and inform users about a wide variety of topics. 

Just as Google Earth can help guide you around the planet and Google Translate can demystify other languages, Google Scholar can unlock the world of academia for all.

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