If you want to become a top student you will need to know how to find scholarly articles for your essays. If you don’t use scholarly articles you will never get top grades.
Fortunately, it is not hard to find academic sources online for free if you know where to look. The problem is, no one taught you where to look!
In this post, I will outline nine tips on how to find scholarly articles for free online. Tip Number 5 will change your life!
Before we get started, here’s a summary of the 9 points I’ll discuss in this article:
- Browse your Course Website for Assigned Readings
- Check Your teacher’s Lecture Slides
- Your University’s Online Library
- Your University’s Physical Library
- Google Scholar
- Google Books
- Assigned Readings from Previous Subjects
- ResearchGate.net and Academia.edu
What is a Scholarly Article?
1. A peer-reviewed journal article is usually a 4000-8000 word article published in an academic journal. Journal articles are considered the best sources for essays because they:
- Have been blind peer reviewed. This means that two experts who don’t know the author read the article and critiqued it;
- Have been written by an expert;
- Are generally written by the person who conducted the original research. This means it’s information straight from the original source.
2. A textbook (ebooks included) is also a respected scholarly text that you can cite in your essays. Teachers love to see that you’re reading and citing textbooks. I recommend reading textbooks because they:
- Are written by experts;
- Have been professionally edited;
- Are widely respected in their field;
Are written for students, meaning they’re easier to read than journal articles!
Why are Scholarly Articles so Important in your Essay?
The top students reference only scholarly articles 95% of the time. That’s because they know how to play the essay writing game.
Before we look at the secret strategies for finding the best sources to reference in your essay, let’s pause for a minute to look at some of the rules of this essay-writing game.
One important rule to remember is that markers don’t read the sources that you reference. They very rarely actually look up where you found the scholarly articles or check to see if they’re real. They don’t have the time. Frankly, they also don’t really care.
So here’s something important to remember:
Graders want to know that you have accessed the best sources, according to the rules of essay writing.
How do they do this?
The person grading your paper will scan through your essay and your reference list to make sure all your sources are from textbooks or peer reviewed journal articles. They’ll be looking for red flags like:
- URLs to blogs or dot-com websites;
- Sources older than about 15 years;
- Sources not written in your college’s referencing format;
- Not enough sources.
I strongly recommend quickly reading our posts on seven terrible sources and seven impressive sources you should be referencing in your essays before reading on. I’ll proceed with the assumption that you have read those posts and already know what a quality reference is.
Let’s look at some places you can go to access those top sources to push your marks up and ensure you ace your next essay.
9 Ways to Find Scholarly Articles
1. Browse your Course Website for Assigned Readings
You should always reference all relevant set readings in your essay as a starting point. The set readings, often called ‘recommended’ or ‘assigned’ readings are usually provided on your course homepage.
Jump onto your course homepage (usually on Blackboard, Canvas or Moodle – whichever Learning Management system your university uses). Then, have a scan around for your set or recommended readings.
All these readings that your teacher provides for you are essential to reference. Your teacher has most likely put a lot of effort into finding sources that they think are the best quality ones around.
They are also sources that you know your teacher has read. This means that they are likely to have informed your teacher’s thinking on the topic. The teacher is therefore likely looking for this information in your work.
Referencing set readings also indicates to your teacher that you have been paying attention. You’ve taken the course seriously and read the content that they advised. It’s a signal to your teacher that you are a ‘good’ student. You want them to think you’re a top student before they’ve even read your assignment in order to get the best marks.
At every university I’ve ever worked at, the Library has made certain that all my recommended readings are easily and freely available to all students – so you shouldn’t have a problem accessing the assigned readings online, instantly.
I’ll leave one quick caveat here:
Don’t only reference your set or recommended readings. You should start with the recommended readings but then go beyond them to show that you’re a top student. The next tips give some suggestions for what to cite next.
2. Check Your teacher’s Lecture Slides
The teacher will likely have provided quotes on their lecture slides. Don’t use the quotes but farm those sources. If your teacher has quoted someone, it means that this author has influenced their thinking. If you can find a way to reference that person they’ve quoted, you’ll get some extra marks. There is also often a list of references on the last page of your teacher’s lecture slides. Here’s an example of a really common ‘final slide’ of a teacher’s lecture:
Check out those sources and see if you can reference a few of them. Again, if they’re good enough for your teacher to reference, they’re good enough for you to reference.
Something to keep in mind is that your teacher will often try to withhold the lecture slides from you. They do this to try to force you to attend the lecture. I always advise students to follow these steps when trying to access lecture slides:
- If the lecture slides are posted online, download them immediately and store them on the computer. You don’t want your teacher to remove your access to them at a whim partway through your course;
- Take plenty of lecture notes. We’ve provided some advice on how top students take lecture notes that you might want to check out.
- If you can’t find the lecture slides, you can try emailing your teacher to request the lecture slides. Your email needs to be strategic to get what you want. Feel free to download and use our free email template to get your teacher to send you lecture slides.
Once you have found the sources your teacher used, search for them using your university’s online library (Step 3) or Google Scholar (Step 5)
3. Your University’s Online Library
University online libraries are a must for finding academic sources.
University libraries have rapidly improved in the last decade as universities try to digitise their content. Universities that offer distance and online courses are especially good at providing eBooks and online journal articles.
You’re best off trying the online library catalogue before going into the library yourself. There’s no point in making a trip all the way to campus when you can do the research from the comfort of your own home. Check for eBooks and journal articles only – I’ll keep repeating it. Textbooks (eBooks included) and journal articles are the only two sources you want to look out for.
Your university’s online library is the ideal place to look for articles and books because everything in the catalogue has been checked by the library.
The journals that the university subscribes to were selected by your teachers. There won’t be blogs or wikis there – just good, pre-approved academic sources.
If you don’t know where your university’s online library catalogue is located, just google it! Just for the exercise, I tried to find a random university’s online library catalogue. It took me literally ten seconds. I typed into Google: “Northern Iowa University Library Search”:
As suspected the first link took me straight to the university’s online library catalogue search:
You should make sure you’re logged on using your University Student ID to get free access to all the sources that pop up when searching for keywords on your topic. Most university libraries will let you know if you will have access to the scholarly article you’re looking for by providing a comment reading either ‘full text available or ‘online access’:
4. Your University’s Physical Library
Look, I know this isn’t an online source. But I would be negligent not to recommend your university’s most underused resource: its library.
Once you’ve checked the university’s online library, it’s worth taking a moment between classes to go into the on-campus library to find hard-copy books.
The one biggest benefit of textbooks is that they were written with students in mind. You will find that journal articles are harder to read than textbooks. Textbooks give clear, accessible overviews of key topics. They also usually do a great job of summarising tough ideas.
If you’ve been set a difficult topic to write on and the journal articles are doing your head in, go get a textbook on your topic. Make sure you go to your library early on. Textbooks linked to your topic will go fast. If you manage to get your hands on a copy, photocopy the relevant pages that you think you will need to use for your essay before returning it.
5. Google Scholar
Thank god for Google Scholar.
Not to be confused with regular old google, google scholar (scholar.google.com) provides access to the best journal articles online.
Google Scholar makes it easier than ever to bypass journals’ paywalls. The rules changed for archiving journal articles in the past five years, enabling authors to store their publications on their open-access university research databases. Google scholar’s search engine looks through all of these databases and provides direct links to millions of these scholarly articles for free. Up until 5 years ago, it would have cost you money for most of these articles.
This means that even if you’ve searched your university database you should always search Google Scholar as well. You’ll find a much wider range of relevant articles. When searching through google scholar, use topic keywords to find scholarly articles relevant to your topic. Let’s say you’ve been asked to write an essay on theories of nursing. You Can simply type nursing theory into Google Scholar:
Once you’ve clicked search, I recommend refining your search to articles within the past ten years. This will ensure the scholarly articles you gather will pass the test when your teacher looks to see whether you selected up-to-date, relevant articles:
Once you’ve refined the search, you can start looking through for articles that are relevant to you. You will find that about half of the sources will still be hidden behind paywalls. Try to stick to the sources that have a [pdf], [doc] or [html] link provided in the top-right corner. These are the scholarly articles you’re most likely to have instant, free, online access to:
Another thing that makes Google Scholar superior to most university catalogues is that Google Scholar searches for keywords in both the title and abstract of the paper.
Most university databases do not search for keywords in the abstract, only the title.
This means your google scholar search will usually render both more specific results for you, as well as simply more results for you.
In the above image, for example, neither of the scholarly sources that Google Scholar found has the phrase “nursing theory” in the title. However, you can see that both mention “nursing theory” or “nursing” and “theory” separately in the blurb below.
Chances are these are two relevant sources that you’d never have found on your university library database. (Note, for example, that in the University of Northern Iowa database search in Tip 1, only sources that had the exact phrase “nursing theory” in the title popped up).
What if the links don’t work?
Sometimes even Google Scholar can’t find free access to scholarly articles for you. There’s still some hope, though!
If an article looks really useful but you don’t have access to Google Scholar, copy the article’s title and search for it on your university’s online database.
Your university might have institutional access. However, as noted above, your original search in your university database may just not have been specific enough for their clunky old system because the exact keywords weren’t in the title. So, try copying the exact title into your university database – it may have access to that source you were after.
There are tons more tricks you can do with Google Scholar. It can help you accurately cite sources, follow ‘As Cited In’ paths to access relevant sources you’d never have found otherwise, and help you narrow down your search terms.
To become an expert at using Google Scholar, I recommend reading my blog post: How to Use Google Scholar like a Pro.
6. Google Books
Once again, thank god for Google!
Google books (books.google.com) gives ‘previews’ of tens of millions of books. More than once, I’ve not had access to a book through my university library but google books have saved the day. Search for books in google books using keywords, just like Google Scholar:
Once again, you’ll see that books pop up that your university database wouldn’t have found. The first two sources for ‘Nursing Theory’ read ‘Nursing Theories’. Many university databases are too old and clunky to realise the words ‘theory’ and ‘theories’ are interchangeable for a book search.
But, here’s the really neat thing: you can begin to read most of the books online for free! Google has a ‘book preview’ option that allows you to read a certain percentage of books without the need to download them.
To know which books you’ll have instant access to, look out for the peeled-over bottom right-hand corner of book covers in the thumbnails. I’ve circled them in red below. You can see that two of the first three sources are available to preview instantly!
Click on the book’s image to receive a book preview. You could start browsing through the book instantly to see whether it’s got any pearls of wisdom you can put in your assignment.
However, Google Books still has another amazing trick up its sleeve.
When in the book preview, you can use the search bar on the right-hand side to search for keywords. If you know that you want to write a paragraph on one nursing theory – say, ‘social cognitive theory’ – you can type this key phrase in the search bar and Google Books will take you right to the place you need to go:
Google Books has just saved you a ton of time searching through the textbook. Plus, it looks like you can actually access all of Pages 18 and 19 where the relevant content you need information in is found. If the link to the page number is in blue, click it and go straight to the relevant page in the book:
If you still didn’t find the information you were after on Pages 18 or 19, keep toggling through the ‘Previous’ and ‘Next’ buttons highlighted in red above to see every time Social Cognitive Theory is mentioned in the whole book.
Google books can save you a trip to the library and is great for finding scholarly sources when you’re cramming to finish an essay overnight.
Is this too good to be true?
The biggest downside of Google books is that you can only sample some pages from most books. That means that you might find that your information is cut-off part-way through reading or blocked entirely.
Nonetheless, Google books can be a lifesaver for finding good-quality information for your essays. Most importantly, Google books provide access to books, which is one of the two most high-quality sources teachers look for when marking your work.
7. Assigned Readings from Previous Subjects
Readings from previous subjects are a great source for providing academic references.
When I was teaching an undergraduate Bachelor of Education, all first-year students took a compulsory Introduction to Teach subject. In this subject, three very useful introductory books were provided that could be referenced in just about every subsequent subject throughout the degree.
The top students recognised the value of these books and referenced them regularly.
Similarly, you should make a habit of always downloading and saving set readings from every subject you take into folders on your computer. I have a folder that contains all set readings for every course I’ve ever taken and taught. It has over 350 journal articles that act as my own personal database of sources. I can use my computer’s search function to type in keywords and find articles that are readily available for me to cite.
If you make a habit of saving useful articles in a folder on your computer, you’re five steps ahead of all your classmates when it comes time to finding good quality journal articles that you can reference for your essays.
ResesarchGate.net and Academia.edu
Research Gate and Academia.edu are two places where academics store their articles. These websites are like Linkedin for academics. Most actively publishing academics will store their articles on these websites.
You can go onto these two websites, set up an account for free, and start downloading journal articles, book chapters and even entire books from those websites.
My personal preference is for the research gate. Research gate seems to be less pushy about coercing you into buying a premium subscription, and I’ve never felt I needed to.
Research Gate also has the option to privately send a message to authors to ask them to send you a copy. If you can’t find a source that you really want to cite anywhere else, try using Research Gate to drop the author an email. To conduct a search for papers, simply create your free account then conduct a search through the search bar at the top of the screen:
Once you’ve pressed ‘enter’, you’ll need to switch to the ‘Publications’ tab to see search results:
Here, you can see that you can browse different articles and read their abstracts just like any other article search. But, with the click of a button, you can also request the full-text article from the author.
The author will then get an email and approve or decline the request.
This is a secret way a lot of professors find academic articles, but it’s really useful (and free!) for students as well.
I use Research Gate and have all 20+ of my academic peer-reviewed articles and book chapters privately stored there. Academics and students around the world regularly send me a request for my articles. I can send the article’s final manuscript draft to them at the click of a button. I always send the article – why wouldn’t I!?
Research Gate is great for authors because they become aware that real people are reading their work, and it’s good for you because you get access to otherwise unobtainable sources.
The one downside of this method is that the articles don’t come to you instantly. It might take 24 – 48 hours for the author to check their emails and send off the full-text copy for you. So, I don’t recommend using the ‘Request full-text option if you’re on a really tight deadline. Nevertheless, there is often the option to instantly access the full-text article, which makes this website worth using no matter what.
Summing Up: How to Find Scholarly Articles
Using scholarly sources is essential for getting top marks. You should always aim to use peer-reviewed journal articles and textbooks as your core sources for all essays.
This post is a part of a series on finding sources for your essays. The other posts that might be of use are below:
- How to use Google Scholar (Like a Pro!)
- Bad Sources to Avoid in Essays
- Great Sources to use in Essays
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.