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Intentional Web: Purposeful Use of Web Resources for Academic Research: The Web as Searchable Database

The guide seeks to help students and other researchers use web-based resources with thoughtfulness and discernment.

Web-Based Alternatives

Academic databases are still the most effective and reliable tools for locating scholarly articles, but there are a number of web-based systems that function in a similar way.  These tools allow the researcher to focus on more relevent and scholarly materials present in, but, perhaps, obscured by, the vastness of the online-universe. 

One should remember, however, that web-based search systems, even academically-minded ones, are usually limited to materials available on the open-web.  Sometimes these web-based systems will locate citations for materials in "hidden" or restricted databases, but they will be unable to provide full-text access to those materials, unless your sponsoring institution is already a subscriber.  In general, web-based searches will tend to recover older materials no longer controlled by proprietorial databases or more recent materials purposefully published as open-access.

At right and below are descriptions of a number of web-based resources and search tools that can greatly assist the research process by managing and in a sense compartmentalizing the web, but be advised that no one system or instrument is exhaustive.  Good research requires multiple forays, using diverse implements and methods.

What's an "article?"

Scholarly, usually peer-reviewed, articles from academic and scientific journals are key components of most research efforts. 

Books and monographs often comprise sustained, comprehensive, and in-depth arguments that delve deeply into a subject area.  They are valuable resources, but it takes time to achieve such an intensive work. 

Articles are equally valuable but shorter format attempts to explore some more narrowly defined aspect of a larger issue or to report in more timely fashion the results of recent experimentation. 

Scholarly journals of various kinds are devoted to specific areas of academic interest, publishing multiple and significant articles on a periodic basis.

Sidebar on Databases

One of the most effective ways to marshal scholarly articles for a research project is through the use of academic databases – the kinds of databases easily accessible through the library homepage.  Like e-books, they are proprietarily controlled, digital collections of materials gathered together and marketed by an independent provider. 

While the content of these articles is sometimes rendered in HTML format, it is usually reproduced as a PDF, functionally replicating for most practical purposes the article as it appears in print form.  The library purchases (at considerable cost) access to these holdings on behalf of students, staff, and faculty.  You should use them -- in fact, you'll need to use them -- but, strictly speaking, they are not the kinds of open, web-based resources that we’re examining here.

"Deleted Cities," by Richard Vijgen, 2011

Mitla -- North Group Lintel, Pre-Columbian Zapotec

Google Scholar

Drawing on Google’s considerable infrastructure and search prowess, Google Scholar, as its name implies, concentrates on scholarly literature available on the Web.  Such material is usually identified by trawling academic periodicals and journals, database providers, college and university sites, and so forth.  Google Scholar may serve to identify promising citations for both books and articles.  Google Scholar may not always provide a link to a digital document but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way to access that source.  Always check with library staff when unable to locate the text you want.

Google Scholar Search


Among other services related to electronic publishing, HighWire partners with a range of scholarly presses, academic organizations and associations to host digital content from journals, symposia, reference works, and more.  Sponsored by Stanford University, its intent is to facilitate the dissemination of research and information and to support scholarly efforts in a variety of fields.  Though it is an open source, HighWire functions in much the same way that a scholarly database might function, offering a number of familiar search options and strategies to access its holdings.


Scirus, much like Google Scholar, is essentially a search engine that focuses on scientific, scholarly, and, to some extent, medical information available on the open Web.  Scirus includes peer-reviewed articles, as well as a host of gray literature and pre-publication communications from conferences, symposia, scientific reports and proceedings.


DOAJ is an online directory of open-access journals from across the disciplines.  In order to be included in DOAJ, journals must demonstrate a peer-review process and/or significant editorial oversight and quality control.  Content in DOAJ emanates from a global scholarly community and includes literature in many different languages.

Public Library of Science

PLOS in a non-profit, online publisher dedicated to the advancement of scientific communication.  As such, PLOS has developed a number of important web-based, open access scientific journals, including PLOS One, PLOS Biology, and PLOS Medicine.  These online journals are peer-reviewed and editorially controlled in much the same way as traditional journals, but they will also include a range of commentary articles.