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  • Writer's pictureEdi Obiakpani-Reid

How to find good sources for your academic paper or essay

Finding sources for your essay or paper can be tough, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience using academic sources. Below are some tips for finding good academic references, as well as some helpful websites you should check out once you’ve figured out your search strategy.

Figure out your keywords

Start with your essay title. Depending on the subject area you’re writing for, the types of keywords will vary. For example, if you’re writing about history, keywords will include things like the date, name of the country or ruler, name of the event in question, and general words related to the event or theme of the paper. Here’s an example:

Article name: Famine in Spain During Franco's Dictatorship, 1939–52

Keywords: Autarky, diseases, famine, Francoism, Spain, starvation

If you’re writing a Psychology paper, you’ll want to focus on both key terms and broad terms. Where does your paper fall in the wider psychological field, and what precise question are you trying to answer? Also, what words come up most commonly in sources on that topic, for example in textbooks. Here’s an example:

Article name: Refined Carbohydrate Consumption and Facial Attractiveness

Keywords: refined carbohydrates, sugars, evolutionary diet, dietary switch, facial attractiveness, social trait, glycaemic load

Stick to around 3-5 keywords per search. If you don’t find anything in any of the main databases or through your university library search engine, think about refining or rejigging your words. You can always throw your whole essay title into a database and see what it spits out - you’ll usually get something remotely related, and can go on from there!

Citation mining

One tactic I live and die by is mining papers for other papers. Every academic publication in a journal will have a list of references at the end, and they can often be the key to expanding your knowledge on a topic. If you find just one good paper that happens to be particularly relevant to your essay question, head to the bibliography of that paper to find out where they sourced their own information.

On occasion, there won’t be a list of citations at the end of an article you download as a pdf. However, if you go to the doi or jstor link for that article, you should be able to find the full list of references published in the journal.


“Hold on! I was always told that you should never use Wikipedia as a source!” I hear you cry.

Well, that’s true, but Wikipedia itself isn’t the source here. Like the bibliography found at the end of an academic paper, every Wiki article has a list of References and Further Reading resources at the end. Never neglect to check the Wikipedia article for the topic you’re writing about, especially if you’ve gone on the site for some general background information anyway (it’s not illegal to read Wikipedia articles!).

This great repository of academic papers, books, and articles has annoyingly been removed from the bar under the search bar on Google (the one that has news, images, etc), but luckily it does still exist. Google Scholar is great for when you’re at the very beginning of your search and are looking for inspiration on your topic. The sources featured range from online articles to journal publications, as well as books you can sometimes preview through Google Books.

It will also have a list of Related Searches at the bottom of the page, which can help your in refining your search and expanding on your list of relevant keywords.

Academic Databases

If you have a university affiliation, you should have access to the best academic databases that have a bunch of articles and books for you to access for free online. EBSCO, Academic Search Complete, and Jstor are the best and most well known databases, encompassing innumerable journals covering every topic under the sun.

Of course, you can also search for a specific journal on their publisher site, such as Cambridge Core or SAGE. These sites are more useful when you’re looking for something specific - if you want to keep your search broad and general, stick to the bigger databases or Google Scholar.

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