Journal Articles: Why you use them

Journal articles are the academic's stock in trade, the basic means of communicating research findings to an audience of one’s peers.

In some fields, especially the sciences, where information accrues rapidly and must be disseminated quickly, journal articles are actually the researcher's preferred means of communication.

In disciplines like social sciences and humanities, where knowledge develops a little less rapidly or is driven less by issues of time-sensitivity, journal articles may simply offer the more appropriate vehicle. Not all important and influential ideas warrant book-length studies, and some inquiry is better suited to the size and scope and concentrated discussion that articles afford.

Regardless of the discipline, however, journal articles perform an important knowledge-updating function.

Their quality and authority are established by other scholars, prior to publication, through a rigorous evaluation method called peer-review.

Searching the journal literature is part of being a responsible researcher.

It's the way you tap into the ongoing scholarly conversation. And it's the way you can be sure that the data you have or the scholarly conversation you’re following is in its most current form.

Databases: Places to Find Articles Beyond HOLLIS

Essentially, a database is a collection of information that's been brought together, described and codified in some way, and then made searchable by a user. 

The key point to remember about any library database -- and Harvard has hundreds -- is that it is constructed intentionally. Some things are included and some are not (you're never searching "everything") but there's always a principle of similarity among the information a database contains.

Sometimes, that similarity will be a format --a database can be made up of all news articles, for example, or public opinion polls, or visual images.

Sometimes the unifying feature is language, a geography (e.g. a database on Latin America), a particular time period (a database covering the Middle Ages or the 19th century, for example), or some combination of these things.

image of a camera with several color filters in front of itResearch projects here at Harvard will often require you to look close up at a body of inquiry produced by scholars in a particular academic field. We call these subject databases.

Every academic discipline -- Anthropology to Zoology and all the fields in-between -- has at least one subject database that's considered the disciplinary gold standard: a reliable, (relatively) comprehensive, and accurate record of the books that scholars are publishing, and the ideas they're debating and discussing in important and influential journals.

 Librarians and course instructors will always know the premier research database in a field, so ask them for recommendations when you're not sure.

Subject databases function like lenses: they can change what you see in research and how you see it -- and they offer you easy and efficient ways to bring your questions into sharper focus.

Common Features of Library Databases (Including HOLLIS)

Databases can have radically different interfaces or radical differences in what they cover. More and more, however, research databases, follow certain design cowordcloud of databse related search terms like otptions find terms content and morenventions. A lot of searching is about pattern recognition.

Expect to see features like these:


Two types of search screens: basic and advanced

  • While basic screens are straightforward invitations to string words together (with AND, OR, NOT) and see where a search goes, the advanced search screens of databases are typically more powerful.
  • Advanced search screens offer a host of other ways to manipulate language and more precisely and deliberately control and shape a search before you run it.
  • And incidentally, advanced search screens  exist for familiar tools like Google, Google Scholar (just click on the ) , HOLLIS, and JSTOR

TWO TYPES OF SEARCH LANGUAGE: keywords and subjects

  • Keywords are the concepts you think up to describe your topic or information need.
  • Subject terms, by contrast, come from a standardized vocabulary list and are chosen by catalogers or database creators to describe the intellectual content or emphasis of an item in precise and commonly understood ways.

Subject terms add value to a search by helping you find additional items that are related in emphasis, that cover similar content, or that have the same purpose.

Subject terms are what ensure that you get to all the relevant information on a given topic, regardless of the keywords with which you start. You might see them called descriptors  in certain databases.  Whatever the nomenclature, their usefulness is in helping  you get around the slippery nature of language.


image of 5 search techniques


screenshot of the left side search limits in Academic Search Premier, a Harvard Library journal database. Limits include sourt type subject terms publisher geography and moreMost databases will present you with ways you can drill down into your initial search results to get better or just more targeted information to surface closer to the top.

Limiting to English (or another language), by resource type, to peer reviewed/academic journals, or to a range of dates are pretty standard ways of customizing a keyword search.

Most databases will rank results algorithmically by relevance, as Google does. If you prefer to see the results in chronological order, you should be able to resort your results by earliest date or have them display in reverse chronological order. You can also choose to rank by relevance if that's not the default.

In HOLLIS, these filters appear on the right side of the screen when your search results display. In most other library databases you use, you'll find them on the left side of the screen.


Many journal databases now provide complete full-text of the materials they contain.  But just as many offer full-text more selectively. 

When full-text links don't appear, however, you’ll almost always see a button that looks like this: square blue Try Harvard Library icon

Clicking on it will initiate a search through Harvard's other library databases in search of full-text.

If full-text isn't available, the software will prompt  you to put in a Scan and Deliver request. We'll get you a PDF of the article, quickly, another way.

To use square blue Try Harvard Library icon with Google Scholar, follow the directions we give here.


Screen real estate is super important: so focus not just on what's directly in front of you, but also on what's off to the side. There are always embedded clues that might push your searching forward. 

 In HOLLIS, for example,  opening up an article record often presents you with an algorithmically-generated short list of  recommended reading. For books, HOLLIS offers a shelf view option (at the bottom of the item record, not the side).

Subject databases often do the same thing: a few even go so far as to tell you what users also read -- not just what's algorithmically appropriate. Some (like ProQuest) offer foundational research related to a topic, when available, or primary sources (e.g., newspaper articles) that might complete your picture of an event. 

And Google Scholar works this way, as well: under a citation, you'll see links for related and cited by (i.e., who used the research after publication).