How To Effectively Search For Journal Articles

Reading journal articles can be one of the most time consuming and challenging aspects of any form of higher study.

Whether it’s for general reading, preparation for an essay of for a presentation coming up, journal searching and reading is a necessity.

However, its common that journal searching and reading can be really challenging and time-consuming. There are some tips and tricks that I have learned over the years that have with this process, which I’m going to share with you here.


Before anything happens, we need to actually find some good journal articles relating to our field of study and the topic we are looking at.

Here is an example essay question so we have a guide for our journal search – ‘Critically evaluate the theoretical and empirical literature that accounts for the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy on young people under the age of 16 suffering from severe anxiety’

Now, the process of fully understanding your essay question is something I have already covered on my YouTube channel GetPsyched, take a look at the video here.

However, what do we do with a question like this when we need to search for journal articles?

Well, some general background reading will be helpful for the essay answer. We need to obtain some articles on cognitive behavioural therapy (both theoretical and empirical literature) and we need to find literature on severe anxiety in young people under the age of 16.

The first thing to do here is to establish some key search terms you want to look up online and in other resources for relevant articles. Some examples of good search terms based on our example question may be as follows:

  • ‘Effectiveness of CBT’
  • ‘Criticisms of CBT’
  • ‘CBT and young people’
  • ‘Severe anxiety in young people’
  • ‘CBT and severe anxiety’

For me personally, the first thing I do to get my basic background reading is to go to Google Scholar and type in these key terms. See what hits you get and if you find any relevant sources.

What I am attempting to do here is to develop a background reading list. The articles you find here will be useful and will no doubt be referenced in your assignment; however, we will come to the point where we need more specific studies that have researched exactly what we are looking at. However, we’ll come to this.

Now, with Google Scholar it can sometimes be helpful to put ‘PDF’ at the end of your search. That way all the articles that are freely available through Google Scholar relevant to your topic, will come up in your search.

The next step would be to go through the resources available to you at your university. Via journal access or other means, typing in your background reading terms into a search engine from your university can be really helpful.

A few key tips:

  • You cannot use Wikipedia obviously, but you can Wikipedia what you want to look at and go down to the reference list they have used and access some studies that way. I have found this really helpful in the past.
  • When reading journals that are relevant t your topic, be sure to see what they have reference and what sources they have used. You can then access them and perhaps use them in your own work.


Ok, so by now you have done a bit of basic searching via Google Scholar and have some articles that are relevant to your question.

This is a good position to be in with your search so far. However, we need to step it up a little and begin some more advanced searches to find some sources that will be even more relevant to our question.

We do this via database searches.

Now, accessing databases can be very different for pretty much any university. Hopefully you will have access to your university library online, in which case you should be able to access databases. If you are struggling with this, then my best advice is to go and speak with your library directly and gain access that way.

So, what are databases?

Databases are basically a massive collection of different journals based on subject. It basically stops you having to go through ever journal in your field of study to find relevant sources. By searching in a database, you effectively are searching multiple journals all at ones.

Database searching is one of the most effective ways to find the articles you need.

Now, there are a few databases that I love to use in psychology, the first is PSYARTICLES, the second is PSYCH INFO and the third is Science Direct.

My advice is to start with these as these are pretty user-friendly and go from there.

Now, remember the whole purpose of us using the databases is to find sources that are really specific and relevant to our topic. So, if we go back to the question – ‘Critically evaluate the theoretical and empirical literature that accounts for the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy on young people under the age of 16 suffering from severe anxiety’ – We want to be looking for articles that have to do with the effectiveness of CBT on young people under 16 suffering from severe anxiety. We’ve done our basic search and now want to get to a more advanced level of article searching.

Now, I could write a whole blog on database search, which I might do in the future but for now, I’m just going to give you a few tips and tricks to get the most out of database searching.

  • Always use the advanced search option.

    • This was you can be more specific
  • Use quotation marks in your search.

    • If you search for something like – severe anxiety – you’ll get thousands of articles that are related to articles that have the word severe in them, and articles that have the word anxiety only. We don’t want this, we want to get sources that are related to both. So, instead what we do is we search for “severe anxiety” in the search bar. The quotation marks group the two together, we get a much smaller search hit total and all the articles we find will be related to severe anxiety as one.
  • Use multiple search bars at once.

    • This is a feature you will only find in the advanced search option.
    • You’ll have the option to add another search bar, and when you do you have the opportunity to add more detail to your search.
    • So, what we might do here is search for “severe anxiety”, then add another search bar and search for “effectiveness of CBT”.
    • Now, when we add this other search bar we will have a drop-down menu next to it that gives the option of either AND, OR, NOT.
    • This speaks for its self. In our case, we want to search for “severe anxiety” AND “effectiveness of CBT”
    • So, what happens here is we are going to get articles that are relevant to the effectiveness of CBT on severe anxiety.
    • We might eventually also add ‘young people’ into another search bar to focus the search even more.
  • Utilise the additional options after you have your search results.

    • After you have your search results from the database, you have options to condense the year of publication and where the articles come from etc.
    • Use these options at your own discretion, they can be really helpful to reduce your hit rate and find the most relevant sources. Especially when you get a hit rate in the tens of thousands, which is common.

The bottom line is that journal searching always takes up more time that you first anticipate.

It can be really frustrating too when you can’t get the sources you need. Hopefully, with these tips and with a systematic understanding of how to be successful in your basic search and your advanced search, journal searching challenges will be a thing of the past.

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