Search Blog & its Links

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Student Tip: Obtaining (the Right Version of) a Research Paper

In this post I explain how and where to look for research papers.

Research papers are usually published in a journal or the proceedings of a conference or workshop. A 'proceedings' is the compendium of papers presented to the audience during the conference or workshop. If an Internet search does not yield what you are looking for, libraries should be your preferred method of obtaining research papers. You may be surprised to learn that there is often more than one version of the same research paper available online. Getting the correct version may make the subsequent task of reading the material much easier for you.

Most libraries that subscribe to scientific publications tend to archive research journals and proceedings. Moreover, many libraries have collaborations on the local, state and even national level with other libraries that allows them to pull papers from each other. Your cost is usually limited to the copy machine charges since copying research papers for research/teaching purposes clearly falls within "academic fair use". I am often surprised by the resourcefulness of librarians when it comes to locating a paper (Google doesn't even come close!). It is also helpful to remember that while a huge swathe of research papers has been scanned and stored online, scanning produces images of pages, not machine-readable text. That means search engines cannot link your query to these papers easily.

Many recent research papers are available online nowadays but a successful search may not be enough; you may be asked to pay before you can download some papers. If you are affiliated to a university or R&D organization or have access to a good library, then it is possible that the publisher of the paper has an agreement with your organization that lets you access papers for free. You can find out if this is the case by checking with the librarian or concerned HR employee.

Increasingly there is also a push to making research papers freely available via online archive services such as Arxiv and on the websites of researchers and/or their host institutions. There is no harm in trying to ascertain if the researcher's website hosts a version of the paper you are interested in. Some researchers also solicit emails from individuals requesting their papers but emailing should be your last resort. The last thing you want to do is put off a (possibly important) member of your research community. Save the email for later - perhaps for when you need help understanding the paper.

You may find multiple versions of the same paper are sometimes available. Why should this be? Because researchers submit different versions of their work to different venues. While there are rules about not resubmitting the same paper to multiple venues, newer results, more detailed descriptions, analyses, or modified experiments are all legitimate reasons to resubmit papers for publication in another venue. Sometimes this is a blessing to the reader looking for details. For example, a graduate student's 120-page thesis is probably more detailed than her research paper (her Thesis condensed into 12 pages!) On the other hand, if you are looking for the gist of a paper, search if the researcher has posted a presentation that she made based on the paper. Spend some time looking for the version that suits your purpose best.

What do you think? Post your comments below.

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