The Guide to Accessing Research
By Geoffrey Miller
The main benefit of the Internet is that it provides access to a vast amount of information.
The main problem with the Internet is that it provides access to a vast amount of information.
The truth is probably out there somewhere, in that vast, amorphous cloud, but how do you find it?
Bringing this a little closer to home, how do you locate and access published academic research on a topic that interests you?
Academics in universities are expected to undertake research and to publish the results of this research in academic journals. For those of us with no formal connection to an academic institution and academic libraries, simply finding out about relevant work is difficult enough, never mind accessing it. AMT, bless its corporate cotton socks, has for many years published a directory of massage-related research (read it here), and this can be a useful starting point, but it’s impossible for one small organisation to keep on top of a vast field. And what if your interest is in some particular disease or treatment modality that is not obviously or directly related to massage? How do you find out what is going on?
This is best illustrated by an example: you read an article in which the author refers to results of an academic study. If the author did their job properly, there will be a hyperlink to the abstract of the paper in which that work was described. Don’t get your hopes up too high at this stage, because an abstract is like the blurb on the back of a novel – it provides enough information to get you interested in reading the full paper, but not enough that you can use it without reading the full paper.
If the paper has been published in an open-access journal, it is freely available to anyone wanting to read it; usually you can read it online or download it, almost certainly as a PDF file. All you need to do is click on the download button, and you’re done.
However, you may find that access to the full paper is hidden behind a publisher’s paywall, so when you try to access it, you are asked for money. You can smile and pay up, and if you’re in a tax-paying income bracket, this can be a legitimate business expense, but there is another option that I’ll come to later.
Suppose instead that you are interested in finding out about research on a particular topic. Your first option should probably be the Cochrane Library to see if there is a recent systematic review covering your topic. However, while a Cochrane review will summarise and compare research papers within its scope, and will have been undertaken using a prescribed methodology, it won’t contain the original data or the detailed conclusions of the original authors. What it will have is a full list of the papers used to prepare the review, and you can chase them down yourself.
A couple of options that you might then consider to locate individual pieces of research are Google Scholar and PubMed. The difference being that Google Scholar is broad in coverage but shallow in depth, whereas PubMed is much deeper in its coverage but narrower, in that its focus is – obviously – on health-related material.
Google Scholar works just like a normal Google search, except that it retrieves academic material and provides a bit of information about the material it has retrieved. For example, it will tell you the date of publication and whether you can download a PDF file or view a web page. If you can’t, the chances are that it will link to the abstract of the paper.
PubMed is a lot smarter than Google Scholar, and if you have any interest in looking at academic research on any health topic, it’s worth spending the time to familiarise yourself with it. Try it out – put in some keywords relevant to something you’re interested in and see what you get. There is a range of search options to help manage your query.
So – if the text of an article is freely available, Google Scholar or PubMed will locate it for you. If not, your new friend is…
Let’s be clear, Sci-Hub is a pirate website that provides access to those papers that publishers try to keep behind their paywalls. Even using it is probably in breach of numerous laws relating to protection of intellectual property, and it would therefore be grossly improper for me to recommend that you use it. The following information on how to use Sci-Hub is thus provided purely for information and does not constitute a recommendation. Clear?
Sci-Hub is (apparently) a bit flaky in operation, so I would prefer not to rely totally on it (not that I use it, you understand). If I were using it, I would locate and access the abstract of the article I want to read and then, if it isn’t open-access, find within the abstract two useful codes: the doi (Digital Object Identifier – a unique identifier for an online journal article, online book or book chapter) and PMID (PubMed ID – serves a similar purpose but is restricted to articles covered by PubMed). Why do you need both? Belt and braces. From what I have heard of Sci-Hub, the PMIDs are a bit more reliable, but if you’re on the periphery of/outside the coverage of PubMed, the doi may be your only option. Sci-Hub offers other search options, but my advice would be to access potentially relevant abstracts by other means, then, if necessary, use Sci-Hub to get to the articles. Again – play with it.
Sci-Hub is Russian. Don’t panic! In the first screen (which is in English), enter the PMID or doi of the article you’re after. When it finds something, you’ll be asked (in Russian) to copy and enter a verification code displayed on the screen – this is presumably to stop automated retrieval programs and ensure there is a human present. Unless you read Russian (I don’t!) the instructions won’t mean anything to you, but just go with the flow. Sometimes (apparently) it takes a few goes for it to recognise the code, but just persist.
So, now you should have at least one academic journal article to read. However, there are a few cautions of which you should be aware.
Always Read the Fine Print
Academic integrity is a fine and wonderful thing. However, any paper in a reputable journal should contain a statement identifying any possible conflicts of interest for the author(s). Check this and factor this into your reading of the paper.
Systematic reviews are the flavour of the millennium as far as the Cochrane Collaboration is concerned, and if you have any interest in a specific topic, then the Cochrane library should have been your first port of call. Many academics also publish such reviews, adhering more or less closely to the Cochrane methodology, so you might also want to start your Google Scholar or PubMed enquiry with “review” as one of your keywords. Just be aware that:
- A “systematic” review can be as vulnerable as any research to bias on the part of the researcher(s).
- The Cochrane standards of evidence do not accommodate research into activities which involve small groups, personal interaction and are difficult to standardise. Such research, no matter how well conducted or how much of it there might be, will be considered to provide “low quality” evidence.
- Undertaking a review takes time. For example, a review published in 2019 is unlikely to cover material more recent than 2017, and more likely 2016. To get an insight into recent research, you’ll have to access individual papers directly.
You may have been wondering why I haven’t mentioned this earlier. Well, Wikipedia is not considered a respectable source of information in academic circles, and there are good reasons for this. Anyone can edit a Wikipedia article, and there is no check on bias or correctness of content (for example, see recent news coverage of concerted campaigns undertaken to edit Wikipedia articles to present the views of the government of the People’s Republic of China). You may think this kind of bias is less likely in technical/scientific areas, but that is not necessarily so. While Wikipedia can often provide very useful background, always check and refer back to any sources quoted in the Wikipedia article and never, never quote Wikipedia as a primary source.
To repeat my earlier advice – play with it! Pick a topic that interests you, use Google Scholar, use PubMed, use (or not) Sci-Hub and see what you get. Remember – the truth IS out there!
- Dana Scully wrote ‘Pub Crawl‘ about accessing PubMed in June 2013; and
- ‘Collaborating with Cochrane‘ about working with the Cochrane Library in September 2013.
About the Author
Geoffrey Miller has practised and studied tai chi and related Chinese martial and health arts since 1996. At the end of 2009, he qualified as a remedial massage therapist and has since worked professionally as both massage therapist and tai chi teacher while pursuing further academic studies in health sciences. As a card-carrying old-age pensioner, he has an interest in working with older people, and with people with disabilities; the latter interest was sparked through a work placement while studying at Canberra Institute of Technology. He is also a published author and enthusiastic (but incompetent) musician.