11 free tools for discovering research

Frustration sets inFinding research is often frustrating. You’re always running into paywalls and the interfaces to most library databases look like they were designed sometime back in 1980. To make it just a bit easier, we’ve assembled a collection of free tools to help you in your research. We discuss both databases and newer social tools for discovery.

6/7/2012 Updated to include Microsoft Academic Search


If your research involves Physics, Math, or Computer Science, you probably don’t need to be told about the awesomeness that is Arxiv (pronounced like the word “Archive”). This is simply the place to go to find the latest research. It’s a pre-print repository, which means that papers here aren’t formally published yet, but practically everyone who needs to read the paper is going to read it here and the great thing is that everyone in the world can read it, for free, the day it comes out. This is one of the reasons CS and math types are right to feel a little bit smug about their field (as opposed to the wrong reasons to feel smug, like their field is somehow more pure than Biology or whatever ;-))

Microsoft Academic Search

Another great source for research, particularly in computer science, is Microsoft Academic Search. This relatively new product from Microsoft is a database of scholarly content allowing search across a large number of scientific societies, publishers, and other institutions. MS Academic search is a great place to explore research because they have a number of innovative search tools like a CFP calendar and numerous ways to visualize the literature by mapping citations, co-authors, academic lineages, and more.

Google Scholar

It’s like Google, but for academic papers. You all probably use it already. One interesting fact you may not know is that Google doesn’t have an authoritative list of sites that supply academic content to search. It looks at a few established sites journal hosting sites: Atypon; Highwire Press; MetaPress, and it looks at aggregators like JSTOR and SciELO, and sites running repository software from Eprints, BePress, and Dspace, but it also trawls the open web for anything that looks like a academic paper. That is, a PDF file that has a title in large font on the first page, with a list of authors below and a bibliography section at the end. If you have a document anywhere with that basic structure, it will eventually be available in Google Scholar, which has enabled some fringe groups to try to claim legitimacy by having their works show up in Google Scholar.

BASE (Bielefeld Academic Search Engine)

This is a great alternative to the frustrating paywall-laden experience you may run into with other search engines. BASE does use a authoritative list of sites from which to select content, focusing on open access content, so you can be sure that you’ll be able to download and read the results of your search.


The easiest thing for many of you reading this would be to just search Mendeley’s catalog. Not only can you search across disciplines, but you can also limit your results to only open access content, and add any result to your library with one click. It doesn’t get any easier than that, and searching Mendeley’s catalog provides a few unique advantages too. We incorporate the social data from the aggregated readership of all of the academics using Mendeley into the search algorithm, so that the results we return are more likely to be widely-read and important papers than if you were to do a simple keyword search of another catalog. You can also find popular groups and tags related to a paper, which could reveal a whole collection of research already created around the topic you’re searching.

PubMed Central

Pubmed Central is a post-print repository for the Life Sciences. All research publications resulting from work funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Heath is supposed to be deposited here, but as it’s a voluntary process, some publishers have been a little slow to cooperate. All the papers in Pubmed Central are free to access, but most of it remains under copyright by the publisher, limiting extensive use of the content, such as for text-mining. Material in Pubmed Central is also carefully curated, with new sources having to meet specific scientific and technical standards for inclusion. There’s currently discussion about extending the mandate to deposit publications beyond just the NIH to 11 other grant funding governmental institutions, which would greatly extend the scope of material available here. There’s also currently a petition drive running to promote further development of free access policies which you may wish to sign here. Since access to research is a global issue, you need not be a U.S. citizen to support this effort.


Science.gov is a search interface across 12 US federal research agencies, including the NIH and NSF, and has a few neat features. One thing I like about it is how it pulls the information about the types of results that have been returned and creates filters from them – a technique called “faceted search”, which many of you have seen on websites like Amazon.com and Ebay.


Scirus isn’t a research catalog, but rather a science-focused general search engine. That said, it has an impressive list of scientific publishing sources that it indexes, including Pubmed, Arxiv.org, Lexis-Nexis and more. It’s good for when you’re you’re looking for information about scientific topics that either might not be indexed by the journal specific sites (like vendor pages) or if you just prefer the interface. Scirus is fast and has some nice advanced search search features to help you narrow down your search.

Social Tools

Moving on beyond catalogs, there are some tools and sites that can be useful for discovering research without going out and searching for something explicitly.

Google Alerts
/ Yahoo Pipes

These tools allow you to specify keywords and get an alert when those terms are mentioned anywhere on the web, either by RSS or email. Google Alerts is the easiest to use, but Yahoo Pipes allows you to control what sources are searched, and is infinitely customizable in a number of clever ways. There are also Pipes that others have built that you can use or adapt to your own ends.


Prismatic is a new service that helps you filter a range of social media inputs and find the most relevant and interesting content being shared by your network. If you’re an avid user of Twitter, you may like Prismatic. To get access, you have to request an invite, but mine arrived quickly and I find it so useful that it’s worth a mention here.


Quora is simple in concept – a site where people ask questions and get answers, which the community votes on – but what makes it different from all the other Q&A style sites that have come before is that you can often get an answer for your question from a real expert, particularly if it has to do with technology or computer science. See for example these answers about machine learning from recognized experts in the field.

4 thoughts on “11 free tools for discovering research

  1. And of course, the most important “tool” of all – build a big, diverse social network that will find, filter and deliver the content you need. Then actively curate it to keep down the weeds and keep up the signal to noise ratio.

  2. I am very grateful to Mendeley for making my PhD research a bit easier. It helped me with making sense out of the mountain of pdfs I accumulated.
    It is one the the 3 tools for digital scientists I recommend, together with Dropbox and Evernote (this ones are not exclusive for scientists).

    Thanks guys and keep the awesome work!

  3. You might want to include the little tool “Harzing’s Publish or Perish”. It is a bibliographic analysis program that draws on data from google scholar, but also very useful to find papers (and those citing them).

Comments are closed.