How to find elusive papers and books

You may be familiar with this scenario. You’re doing an essay, or revising for an exam, and there’s one annoying paper or book that you just can’t seem to find. Before you shell out for a full price book or a pdf paper (pdfs can cost $20 each!), there are a few tricks that improve your chances of finding the elusive literature. Follow the steps below in the given order. They rarely fail. In fact I can think of only one time that I’ve had to buy a paper online, and even that was some rare FBI report on serial killers.

Finding elusive journal papers

1) Online Databases

Start by searching the online databases you have access to through your university. If you have an ATHENS account, EBSCO is where you can find PsycINFO and PsycARTICLES. Check your universities intranet portal, if they have a useful papers section or something similar. Also register at Science Direct and check there. These should be your first ports of call.

2) Google Scholar

Search Google Scholar. Search for the full title of the paper first, and if that doesn’t work, just search for a snip of it that has no question marks or colons in it. Sometimes searching for the full title doesn’t bring up a paper that’s actually there, for some odd reason.

3) Normal Google

Search for the title of the paper in normal Google. Sometimes this will bring up a page hosting the paper, or the author’s personal website.

4) Authors’ websites

Google the names of each of the researchers in the paper. Check all their personal websites, just in case the Google search didn’t pick them up for some reason. If none of the authors have the paper available for download (sometimes, annoyingly, they just have a list of papers without download links), email the first author and ask if they have a pdf they could send you. Say your doing an essay and really need the paper for your assignment. Don’t write a seven page explanation of why you want it, and don’t be surprised if you get a reply with no content, just the paper as an attachment. They are not being rude, they just get about a million emails a day. The times I’ve had to do this I’ve always gotten prompt replies. If the first author can’t or won’t send you a copy, email the second author, and so on.

5) Fellow students

Email/ask your fellow students who are doing the same assignment if they have it. Ask the lecturer who is giving the class if they have it.

6) Hard copies

Check your universities holdings to see if they have a paper version of it. This is unlikely if it doesn’t show up in the online searches, but possible.

7) Other universities

Check other universities. Search their online catalogues first, to see if they have the journal you want. Obviously start with the closest one and move outwards. I don’t know about the US, but here in the UK there are schemes to allow you to access other libraries and get books out (SCONUL), and most will also allow you to join as a guest for the day (sometimes for a price).

Finding elusive books

1) University library

Obviously, start with your university library.

2) Google Books

Search Google Books for it. If it’s on there, you are able to search inside the book, and you get a few preview pages. By using relevant search keywords, you can often bring up the few pages of the book that you need, get the info you want, and copy and paste a quote if necessary. Amazon‘s ‘Search Inside’ feature serves a similar purpose.

3) Bookstores

If you don’t need to read a whole book, go to a bookstore that will have it. At this point you’ll have to use some stealthy method to extract the information you want. If your phone has a good camera, you can photograph the pages, else you can copy out the quote you need into a text message and save it into your drafts. At the very least, you can read the section you want.

4) Amazon/Ebay

Check Amazon and Ebay. Can you get a used copy for just a few quid? If so, consider buying a copy. It might cost you the same as it would to travel to another university, so this is worth checking first. I once got a copy of Dan Dennett’s Elbow Room for less than £2. If you won’t need the book after the assignment, donate it to your university library when you’re done (do this whenever you have psychology books you no longer need – you will feel good inside, and the library staff will look kindly upon you, which is always useful).

5) Other universities

Check other universities’ libraries. As with journal papers, check the online catalogue before making the trip!

6) Local libraries

Look in large local libraries. This is a long-shot if the above methods haven’t worked, but if it’s a large one like the British Library, there’s a chance.

These should do the trick. If you get an electronic version of a paper, make sure you keep it! Then if you need it again you won’t have to go through this whole process again. Make a folder called ‘Journal Papers’ and inside that have a folder for each particular field. Another big time saver is to write your references in a text file as you go along. With text edit on the mac you can ‘paste and match style’ (command+alt+shift+v), so that it’s pasted in the same font and font size.

Also, you can google the name of the paper, not to find the paper itself but to find one in which it has been cited in APA format. Then copy from their reference list, paste and match style into your file, et voila – a full reference list in proper APA format, all commas and dots in the right places. EBSCO has a ‘cite this paper’ button at the bottom of each page that you can use for the same purpose.


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