Scientific databases – which one should you use

Scientific Databases

We have already explained in this blog what types of scientific articles exist. Now, you may wonder – where I can find scientific articles? How do I know what has been published on my subject? Because googling doesn’t lead me to scientific studies.

Well, I have good news. Even on Google, there is a specific section for searching scientific studies. It is called google scholar. But there are many more resources other than google.

Scientific databases

Usually, the first time you arrive at a scientific study is by following the references of other texts. As we saw in where to start the research of a new scientific topic,  you follow a path from general sources to more specific sources.

Once you have pass the basic level, you have read a few sources and you want to gain perspective on the subject.

For that, you need to review the studies published on that specific topic. You need a tool to search scientific literature. This tool is a scientific database.

Scientific databases, or academic databases, not only encompass journal articles, but also conference proceedings, books, doctoral theses, and other scientific-related documents.

As mentioned above, we can use google scholar. Technically, it’s not a database, it’s a search engine that looks for information everywhere, including scientific databases. However, since it looks at the whole web, which is too vast, makes it difficult to rank on the first page the references you are looking for.

So, what are the alternatives?

The two biggest scientific databases

In the world of scientific databases, there are two big commercial actors: Scopus and Web of Science, previously known as Web of Knowledge.

These two are the biggest databases with over 70 million references each. The problem is that these databases are intended for institutions, and they are quite expensive. These are the databases you will find in the library of a university. In many cases, if you go in-person to the library of a university you can use one of these databases for free in the computers of the library even if you are not a student. So, if by chance you have the opportunity to access a university maybe it is worth passing over the library and search on these databases.

The problem with these databases is that you can’t use them unless you belong to an institution that pays for access. But they are so relevant, that you need to know about their existence.  The rest of the resources I am going to show you below are accessible for everyone, at least the bibliographical data. The documents themselves, in some cases, will be under a subscription fee or a paywall. In a future post, I will explain how to deal with that.

Free access general databases

An alternative to these multidisciplinary databases is JSTOR. Although access to most of the documents is not free, it is a great tool to find research papers.

JSTOR has a cool feature called text analyzer, currently in beta, which could be interesting in particular cases. You can paste a text or drag a document and the tool identifies the keywords of the text giving you back related documents.

A tool like that is interesting to trigger a serendipity search to find documents related to your specific topic of interest which initially don’t seem naturally connected to you. Serendipity accidents are considered to have a potential for innovation because connect ideas from different fields that are not related a priori. Let us a comment below with your experience using this tool.

Another great tool is Semantic Scholar. In this case, they use the power of artificial intelligence to extract meaning from scientific literature making the search more efficient than the traditional keyword search.

Most of the databases use the metadata defined by the authors to sort the document and make suggestions. However, Semantic Scholar extracts the topics discussed in the article directly from the text and suggest related studies base on it. It also differentiates the type of citation (highly influential, background, methods, results) which is very valuable information to get the ball rolling in the direction of your interest to find relevant references. Other features that have enormous potential are: filter by papers with pdf available and create feeds of latest papers by topic of interest (currently in beta).

Another alternative worth exploring is ScienceOpen with several features to enhance research discovery.

This is the nice part! Every tool has small tweaks that make them special. You have to find the one that works better for you.

Thematic databases

The thematic databases are the most practical resources to find relevant scientific articles because you are already looking within a specific area of knowledge reducing the ambiguity of queries that belongs to several fields.

For example, if you query “arm biomechanics” in a life science database you will retrieve studies of the mechanical aspects of the human arm. However, with the same query in an engineering database, you will retrieve articles on robotics devices. In a computer sciences database, you will get research on human-machine interaction. And, in social sciences databases, you will obtain papers on anthropology. So, by choosing the database you will already reduce the scope of your search, which is good.

For the sake of simplicity in the following list, I highlight the main scientific databases sorted by area of knowledge. All databases provide similar tools for search, filter, and create alerts. I invite you to explore all the possibilities of the database most relevant for your scientific library.

  • PubMed – medicine and life science
  • IEEE Xplore – engineering, technology, and computer science
  • arXiv – physics, mathematics, and computer science
  • dblp – computer science
  • SSRN – social sciences and humanity
  • EconBiz – economics
  • ERIC – education science

Open Access Repositories

All the resources mentioned above are great, and lead you to a ton of references worth reading. However, there is a small problem. In many cases, they lead you to a scientific article that is under payroll where you only have access to the abstract and the list of references but not the full text. This could be a bit frustrating especially at the beginning when you don’t have resources at your disposal like a university library.

One way to avoid this problem is by searching only on open access repositories. Open access is a type of publication where the reader has free access to the full text because the publisher covers the cost or the authors have paid a fee to publish open access. Fortunately for the world, the scientific publication business is moving in that direction and it is becoming more and more common to publish in open access format.

Again, I list below the main Open Access Repositories for you to explore the one that fits better your interests.

  • DOAJ – all disciplines
  • Paperity – all disciplines
  • CORE – all disciplines
  • OpenDOAR – all disciplines
  • Zenodo – all disciplines
  • BioMedCentral – medicine and life science
  • PLOS – medicine and life science
  • arXiv – physics, mathematics, and computer science
  • JURN – mainly arts and humanities but also business and law

Other resources – Gateways

Gateways are centralized access points to a network. In our case, this means, they are search tools that retrieve documents from specific databases.

For example, ScienceDirect is a well-known gateway to access all the documents published by Elsevier. Elsevier is indeed the largest scientific publisher, but it will not show you results from any other publishers which is quite limiting. You can find similar tools from other publishers like Springer or Wiley.

Another scientific gateway is, the search tool of the U.S. government on science information that offers scientific and technical information of the main U.S. federal agencies (NASA, EPA, NIH, US Department of Transportation, Department of Homeland Security among others). In turn, belongs to the, which provides a similar service but for all the participant nations (more than 70 countries).

These national portals offer different possibilities than the pure scientific databases because they give access to additional science-related documents beyond peer-reviewed publications, like technical reports, internal research, surveys, patents, guidelines, etc, by country instead of by discipline.

Bonus line, if you are interested in this last point you may want to check The World Factbook.


All these resources are great, but you should not forget your principal goal. The purpose is not to know all the databases that exist but to find the one that works the best for you and create a system that keeps you updated on autopilot efficiently and effortlessly, as we will see in the next post.

Your turn

Which of the databases works the best for you? In which field are you interested? Do you use other resources to find literature?

Leave us your answer in the comments.

How to build YOUR own scientific library

In this blog, I write about how to find, organize, and retrieve scientific studies efficiently to create your own scientific library.

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Author: Enrique Morales Orcajo, PhD

I am an engineer, scientist, and traveler based in Europe. I write about how to consume and digest scientific studies in a practical and efficient way. My goal is to help you make more sound scientific judgments.

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