Tip: To find the best science articles, try more than one source.


First, a warning: in the spirit of today’s scientific theme, this will be heavy on the Library Science, but I hope it will also be useful.

If you ARE a rocket scientist, skip this post because you will have access to scholarly databases at your well-funded research library. But let’s say you’re a student looking for articles for your paper on the effects of climate change on maple trees. What’s the best source?

I decided to do a Science Search Showdown to compare four science databases. Three are free on the Web, and one (Academic Onefile) is free to visitors to the BML and to cardholders from home.

For this example, I searched the words MAPLE CLIMATE CHANGE at each of the four sites. Using the limit features of the databases, I limited the search to English language articles published from 2005-2008. Here are results and my impressions:

Google Scholar

What they say: “Google Scholar helps you identify the most relevant research across the world of scholarly research…Google Scholar aims to sort articles the way researchers do, weighing the full text of each article, the author, the publication in which the article appears, and how often the piece has been cited in other scholarly literature. The most relevant results will always appear on the first page.”

  • My results: 4,960 articles
  • Easy to limit date from their advanced search page.
  • Hard to find which articles are in full text; you have to click on each link.
  • Comments: There’s a nice subject-limiting feature; for example, I limited the maple search to “Biology, Life Sciences, and Environmental Science,” and got the set down to 2,320 articles. Also, it’s part of that big, seamless Google universe… However, the result list was cumbersome, and despite their claims of relevance, the first article I checked (“Predicting the effects of climate change on water yield and forest production in the northeastern United States”) did not contain the word Maple. Also, the search capabilities are limited if you want to get very specific (i.e., there is no “boolean searching“). Experienced Scholar users might find some things I’ve overlooked, but those are my impressions after a quick search.

HighWire Press from Stanford University

What they say: “A division of the Stanford University Libraries, HighWire Press hosts the largest repository of high impact, peer-reviewed content, with 1186 journals and 4,873,373 full text articles from over 140 scholarly publishers. HighWire-hosted publishers have collectively made 1,966,196 articles free. With our partner publishers we produce 71 of the 200 most-frequently-cited journals.”

  • My results: 250 articles
  • Very easy to limit date from main search page.
  • Easy to find which articles are in full text; they have a special click-button.
  • Comments: Very clear presentation format; supports boolean searching for science info junkies; lots of customization options within the database (“my favorite journals,” etc.). Way less frustration in combing through the search results! This got my highest marks.

Scientific Commons

What they say: “The major aim of the project is to develop the world’s largest communication medium for scientific knowledge products which is freely accessible to the public…Currently ScientificCommons.org has indexed about 13 million scientific publications and successfully extracted 6 million authors’ names out of this data (January 2007). ScientificCommons.org is a project of the University of St.Gallen (Switzerland) and hosted and developed at the Institute for Media and Communications Management.”

  • My results: 511 articles
  • Easy to sort by date, which is the next best thing to limiting.
  • Hard to find which articles are full text, though not quite as hard as Google Scholar. You have to click on the article link, and it will either have a full-text download option or not. All of them have an option to download the citation for end notes, etc., but only a select number have the whole document.
  • Comments: There is an international focus. It seems that this will probably keep growing, so it’s worth watching, and it’s probably a good idea to include it in most science searches.

Academic Onefile (requires Brooks Memorial Library card if using from home)

What they say: “Academic OneFile is the premier source for peer-reviewed, full-text articles from the world’s leading journals and reference sources. With extensive coverage of the physical sciences, technology, medicine, social sciences, the arts, theology, literature and other subjects, Academic OneFile is both authoritative and comprehensive…Updated daily.”

  • My search results: around 6 articles, using a couple different methods. (The default Subject Search was best; I followed my way through the links to “Maples – Environmental Aspects.”)
  • Easy to limit by date on main search page.
  • Very easy to find which articles are full text – you can limit that ahead of time so it only brings up full text.
  • Comments: Many useful limiters; for example, you can limit to articles with pictures or articles in journals that cover a specific subject. Supports boolean searching, and it will immediately translate articles into a variety of languages! The default Subject Guide is kind of basic, but sometimes basic is helpful. Unfortunately, it’s a bit weak in some of the sciences. Still worth trying, though – and definitely useful for other disciplines.