When you're looking for magazine or journal articles, search engines can be helpful, but other specialized search tools are often a better bet—particularly in the academic, scholarly and sci-tech areas.
Google Scholar is an effort by Google to point you to either a summary or, occasionally, the full text of "scholarly" articles and books. Although the name of this service is Google Scholar, it also includes articles from less academic publications that are directed at professionals, such as Dental Assisting, Library Trends, and even The New York Times. While the search page and the search results look similar to the regular Google search engine, you're searching a different index of material. And the search results are strikingly different from Google's web search engine.
Many of the search result items link to article citations and abstracts provided by the publisher or an aggregator. You can purchase a copy of the full text of the article directly from the publisher or aggregator—most prices range from $10 to $30 per article. A relatively small number of citations include links to a free, full-text copy of the article. The search results page also provides information on the number of citations to each article within the Google Scholar database (which isn't the same as all citations to the article, of course). This is sometimes a useful way of gauging an articles impact within that discipline.
Some results are labeled "citation", and are just that: All that Google knows about the item is the title, author's name, publication title and date. There is no link to an abstract, nor a direct way to purchase a copy of the article, report or book. Likewise, entries from the Google Book Search database also appear in Google Scholar results, along with a link to the Google Book Search page for that book. There is a link labeled "web search" next to each of these citation listings; this will simply run a search in the regular Google search engine for the words within the title.
Scirus is an interesting hybrid; it includes both summaries of scientific/technical journal articles and selected science-oriented web pages. You can also choose to search only articles or only web sites. If you click the link to an article from the search results screen, you will be taken to a web page through which you can purchase a PDF copy of the full text. In the case of web material, you can click through to see the full text of the item.
The search results page also includes suggested words and phrases that can help you narrow your search. Since this list is generated automatically, some of the phrases may be more useful than others. You can also click a box on the left side of any of the search result items and then click the "Email checked results" or "Export checked results" to produce a list of the articles you have selected.
PubMed is the well-known database built and maintained by the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Very few of the records within this database are in full text; on the other hand, this is a very in-depth collection of medical research, dating back to the 1950s. There are links within selected article summaries that will take you to a free, full text archive. Look for a link labeled "Free full text article". Be sure to click the "Help | FAQ" link for detailed information on how to conduct focused searches and limit your results to just the types of information you need.
CiteSeer and SMEALsearch provide access to summaries of scientific and business literature, respectively. What is particularly intriguing about these two databases is that they let you look for articles that reference a particular article, thus letting you track down articles related to your topic. Individual records list the articles that cite that record ("Cited by:") as well as a list of "Similar documents" and "Related documents", calculated by analyzing the articles themselves. These two databases are built by specialized search engine spiders that scour the web for full text articles, so you can download the full text of any of the articles retrieved in CiteSeer or SMEALsearch. Because of the requirement that all articles are in full text, these are smaller databases than Scirus or PubMed.
OAIster is an index to academically-oriented "digital resources" available for free from close to 600 libraries and other organizations. These digital resources range from images at the Library of Congress to audio files, reference books such as dictionaries, articles from online journals, and electronic books. You can search for any word within the document, or you can limit your search to the document title, author, subject or type of material (audio, video, text and so on).
The search results page includes a description of each item, along with a link you can click to get a copy of the item. There is also a link next to each listing, "add to bookbag". Click this link and the item is added to the equivalent of a shopping cart (except that there is no charge for any of the material retrieved through OAIster). When you are finished with your searches, click the link "View Bookbag" and you can then select to have the OAIster records emailed to you or downloaded. Note, however, that what you receive is simply the OAIster record, not the "digital resource" described. You'll still have to click the link in each record in order to view the full text of the resource.
Some publishers are making the full text of their articles available for free on their web site, even to people who don't subscribe to their publications. Newspapers and general-interest magazines such as Newsweek and Car & Driver usually make all or most of their articles available on their site, although they may offer a limited archive of articles from prior issues.
Gradually, more of the academic, medical and sci-tech publishers are also beginning to make their publications available on the web. One striking example is the Public Library of Science, which publishes six peer-reviewed journals on the web; you can pay $175/year to have a print subscription mailed to you, but the expectation is that readers will download and print the issues themselves. Other examples of free, high-quality publications include the IBM Journal of Research and Development and JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association.
Mary Ellen Bates is the principal of Bates Information Services, a research and consulting business based in Boulder, Colorado.
NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.