Using Web of Science to Build an Empirical Literature Review

"Spider : General view" by Louise Bourgeois
April 10, 2014

Building an empirical literature review can be a daunting task. Within the short lit- review section of most social science journal articles, the authors survey seminal essays, describe debates in the field, unpack unanswered questions, and counter critiques of their stance on the topic. Not only does the lit- review precede the “original research” portions of the published article, it grounds that research from its earliest incarnations as a study design, grant proposal, IRB application, doctoral dissertation proposal, etc. The lit- review juxtaposes the researchers’ hypotheses or research questions against earlier tests and inquiries. It places the new research in context, that context being existing debates within the scholarly literature. There is no short cut to mastering that context well, but Web of Science (Wos) tools can increase the efficiency of early topical forays. Here’s how…

Web of Science, which can be accessed via the “Find Databases by Title” link on the Yale Library homepage, functions as a search engine like EBSCO or Google Scholar. Unlike these engines, it searches a sub-set of highly ranked social science and science journals. “Better” is WoS’s comparative advantage, whereas “more” is Google Scholar’s. 

Once search results are yielded, a range of tools becomes available. The “Research Areas” tool in the left-side column is especially useful, as it categorizes the results into disciplines, sub-disciplines, and other scholarly domains. This categorization can facilitate brainstorming about how and where to locate the original research. It can also increase efficiency by enabling the researcher to quickly select or weed out research areas. 

The same tool is enabled within the search record of each article, enabling far more complex citation checking and evaluation than search engines such as Google Scholar. For example, from the search record page of Agarwal’s influential “Participatory exclusions, community forestry, and gender…”, a researcher can click on “146 times cited” and begin to employ WoS’s categorization tools.

The articles that have cited Agarwal’s piece can be arranged and reviewed topically (i.e., Research Area) or by author.

The analytics for Agarwal’s article can be reviewed quickly and easily as well, via a click of the Create Citation Report link above the right side of the search results. Within that report, the analytics of citing articles are revealed. The researcher can use this information to construct a chain of most important articles, not dissimilar from a list of influential court cases yielded by shepardizing. 

When unfamiliar journals are encountered among the search results, WoS offers a journal citation evaluation tool that enables the researcher to quickly determine the relative “impact” of that journal within the field. For example, the journal Environmental Management. The relative “quality” or “impact” of Environmental Management can be inferred via the analytics available in WoS Journal Citation Reports (JCR). The JCR tool is accessed via a link/tab at the top of WoS. 

The JCR tool can produce reports for single journals or entire disciplines.

In this case, Environmental Management has an impact factor of 1.647. Is that good? 

Because impact factors are relative (e.g., within disciplines, sub-specialties), a review of the broader field is required to determine the goodness of 1.647. Within the record for the journal, the Related Journals button enables a quick look at competitor journals. For a look at the entire field, the researcher can use the subject category from the record, in this case Environmental Sciences. 

The researcher will need to go back to the opening screen of JCR and select an entire database (e.g., JCR Science Edition) AND the option “View a group of journals by Subject Category.” On the following page, the researcher will need to select Environmental Sciences. The resulting list will appear alphabetically, but can be resorted by impact factor (i.e., rather than Journal Title). 

While nothing substitutes for a thorough review of the literature, WoS can enable newer researchers and researchers new to a field to quickly assess the impact of seminal articles, locate citing articles, categorize scholarship into disciplines and domains, and assess the relative quality (vis-à-vis impact factor) of journals. The tools in WoS can increase the efficiency of early stage literature review building, leaving more time for original research design and deployment. 

Image: “Spider : General view” by Louise Bourgeois, courtesy of Yale Digital Image gallery

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