Finding and Evaluating Articles

By Lauren Pressley

When working on a college level paper, you will inevitably be told to find articles. Articles are much different from books, but can be even more useful for research than books for some subjects. Luckily, the library is here to help!

Articles can be very useful for research and for finding specific facts to support your research. As with books, you have the option to use paper or electronic articles. Sometimes the library will have an article in both paper and electronically. Sometimes you’ll have options for different types of electronic files. Sometimes it will have it in one format or the other. In fact, electronic articles have been around and mainstream far longer than electronic books, so it will be more common to find articles only in electronic format.

Why articles? What are they?

Articles are the embodiment of scholarly communication. They are shorter forms of writing with a narrower scope that convey a focused amount of information on a topic. Scholarly articles (or peer-reviewed, depending on the terminology your professor prefers) are written to share new knowledge as it is discovered. Once an idea becomes more established or a broader base of knowledge is found about it, people might consider writing an entire book on the topic.

Articles are fairly narrow and can be very current. Because of this, when you search for them you might need to think more specifically about what you’re looking for. For example, if you are writing about a specific civil war battle you might need to narrow your search further to be about the officers in charge at that battle, the demographics of the fighters, or terms relating to the outcome.

You might choose not to read every article you find from front to back. Articles are fairly dense, and although they’re not books, they can be quite long. Poorly constructed searches can return thousands of results, and you won’t have time to read all of them. Whenever you find an article that looks like a good candidate, it would behoove you to read the abstract. Do not go by the title alone. It can be misleading. Once you read the abstract, and know it’s a good article, reading the introduction and conclusion will give you a good sense of what the author is trying to say. If the article remains a good candidate for your project at that point, you can read it with a close eye for details that will support your research.

Databases vs. Journals vs. Articles

It can be confusing to know where to start when looking for articles. You can easily find links to journals and databases on library websites, but it’s not always clear how these links might help you find articles. This section will help clarify what these resources are so you will know how to use them to find the articles you need.


Articles are the discrete piece of content that you are looking to use in your scholarly paper. These tend to be written by an individual or a group of individuals. Good scholarly articles tend to be fairly long, often in the neighborhood of fifteen pages or more. They also have thorough bibliographies that can help lead to you other resources


Journals are collections of articles. Scholarly journals come out periodically which is why you’ll sometimes hear them referred to as “periodicals.” Journals tend to be published on a given subject area and sometimes have more specific issues focused on a narrower topic within a given subject.

Most libraries integrate journal searching into their catalog. You might find this helpful as you become more familiar with your major. Once you know more about what journals useful articles are published in, you might find yourself looking at current issues for inspiration on research topics. If so, you could search the catalog for them. Another reason you might search for journals is if you’re starting with a citation. An article citation will include the journal title and the date of publication. This is all you need to track down the article!

Though most journals are electronic, you can find many of them in paper. Current ones are shelved together, first by volume and then by issue. For example, all of “volume 1” would be shelved at the beginning of the title on the shelves, and “volume 23” would be shelved together much later. Within each volume there will be several issues, ordered numerically. Older journals are bound together into books. For example, all the issues of a journal in a given year might be bound together into one book. That book will look like a regular book on the shelves in the library. So, if you’re looking for an older journal and find yourself looking at shelves of books, there is a good chance your journal is contained in one of the books in front of you.


Databases are online collections of journal citations or articles on the internet. This can be extremely helpful, especially when you’re not sure where to start and want to search across a broad number of journals. When you are told that you need a specific number of articles on a topic for your paper, database searching will be your best bet.

General vs. Specific Databases

When you are starting research in databases, you will need to determine if you want to start with a general database or a subject specific one. General databases, like EbscoHost’s Academic Search Premier or ProQuest, are really useful when you are totally new to a subject and are not familiar with subject specific databases. These databases can also be especially helpful when you are doing interdisciplinary research as they span many different subjects. The drawback of general databases is that because they span many subjects, if your search is not very precise, you might get search results that include articles completely irrelevant to your search.

Subject specific databases tend to include articles from journals relating to a specific discipline. This is really helpful because they are focused, giving results that are focused as well. They sometimes have journals that are not part of the larger general databases. They also can be more focused in the additional information they provide about each article, allowing you to search on more variables.

Why is there an encyclopedia in my Databases?

Some library websites include other resources along with their databases. In this case, they are providing one place to find many of their electronic resources. If your library website does this, you will likely find encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference resources listed alongside your databases. You’ll want to read the information about your specific database if you are unclear if it’s a database or other resource. Databases will say that they include scholarly articles and maybe even list the journals the database collects.

Locating Your Articles

Once you have found a database or journal and used that to find an article, you will need to get the article. Luckily, many databases include the full text of the article so that you don’t have to track down the paper version. If it is included you will be able to click on the “full text” link and use that to access the text.

Sometimes, you’ll have options for the full text. Most of the time these are described as PDF or HTML. PDF documents are files that you can download and save to your computer. These documents tend to maintain the formatting of the journal, so reading from PDFs allows you to see the original version of the article, with page numbers, and the images located in the text as the author and editors intended. HTML is another type of format for scholarly articles. These are really quick to load, but harder to save to your computer. The benefit of HTML articles is that they frequently have links in the document that point to relevant sections in the article, the citations, or sometimes even link to the article the citation points to.

If the article is not available online, you might have access to a paper version of the article in the library. As mentioned above, journals are bound together into books after a period of time. If you’re looking for a journal on the shelves of the library, you’ll need to know the call number. You can get this by searching for the journal title in the catalog. Using the call number, you can look for the journal in the stacks, just as you would a book. (Insert link to LC section in the previous chapter)

Sometimes the library does not provide access to an electronic version of the article and does not have a paper version of the journal. In these cases you can use Interlibrary Loan to request the article as you would a book (insert link to ILL section from last chapter). Most of the time, you will receive an electronic version of the article instead of waiting to have the physical journal shipped to you. This means you will often get articles more quickly than you would a book, though you still need to plan ahead if you think you might need to use Interlibrary Loan to get an article.

Using an Article

Once you have articles to read, you will want to make use of them. Luckily, there are some general trends that apply to many articles and you can use these trends to help you in understanding what you are looking at and interpreting how to use it in your own work. Each section might not exist in every article, and they would likely be named different terms depending on the field and author.


As discussed above, the abstract gives an overview of the article and lets you know what to expect in it. This information can help you determine if the article will be worth reading and might provide information that is relevant to your topic.

Author Information

Most articles include the authors’ names, titles, and institutions. Sometimes articles include additional information. This information lets you know more about the authority of the authors and gives you a sense of their background. If an article is particularly relevant, you can use this information to find additional works by the same author.


The introduction provides a thorough overview of what to expect in the article. It might layout what to expect. If there are funding agencies that supported the research, they might be mentioned in this section, giving the reader a sense of if there is any potential bias in the work.

Literature Review

Literature reviews are goldmines for research. These sections provide an overview of what has been said on the topic and might provide summaries of the most important articles on the topic. You can use literature reviews to find additional resources, knowing how useful they’re likely to be since you’ve been able to read the summary.


For scientific articles, the methodology article explains the experiment or approach to the research. This is helpful in critiquing the research as well as for giving you a sense of if there are specific other aspects you’d like to research on your own.


The findings section explains the results of the research. The information contained in this section is the primary reason the article is published.


The conclusion contextualizes the findings and helps the reader understand their importance. This section can be another one that is worth reading first as it gives you a sense of how the author thought the research project went and what was found. Sometimes authors will include a section on future ideas for research based on their findings.

Charts and Graphs

Many articles have very useful charts, graphs, or illustrations meant to clarify their findings in a visual way. These can help you quickly identify what the authors found as well as give you a graphic that might be useful in your own paper–with attribution, of course!


As with books, if you find a source that is completely relevant to your topic, take a look at the bibliography. It will include a list of perfectly relevant books, articles, and websites for your topic. You might use the information you find there to help you in finding additional sources as well.


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