Skip to Main Content

Citation Searching

Introduction to using citations as a method of searching for new content instead of subject/keyword searches.

What is it and When would you use it?

There are essentially three types of citation searching that can be used:

  1. You can trace citations backward by looking at the reference list of a relevant scholarly work and identifying other relevant works cited.  This can be continued back several generations by checking those works' reference lists.  However, this will only be useful for finding items older than your starting article.  This can typically be done using only the article(s) itself by examining the reference list.
  2. You can trace citations forward by using databases that allow you to find what other works cite your starting item.  This also can be continued for several generations.  This will help identify newer works that used an item of interest in their own research.  Certain databases, such as Web of Science and Google, as well as others can help do this automatically.
  3. You can compare bibliographies with unknown works to find related works, those items that appear in both works' bibliographies.  This method of related item searching can show you works with a high degree of overlap with your starting bibliography.  If two works have many of the same items in their bibliography, they are probably closely related in topic.  This functionality is available in Web of Science, and to a certain extend, EBSCOhost databases.

All types of citation searching work best when you have already identified a relevant work that is on topic... this could be

  • A very influential article that establishes the basic theory or technique you're studying, or represents a breakthrough.  Then you can trace citations forward to find recent works that are continuing to use that theory or technique.
  • A recent article that has a well-defined bibliography.  In this case, you can compare bibliographies to find related articles, or trace citations backward to identify important works..
  • Using the 'best' articles from a previous search as a starting point for any of the citation searching techniques.

Why use citation searching instead of keyword searching?

There are several key differences in how citation searching works compared with traditional keyword or subject term searching.

  • Citation searching relies on the authors to create links to other pertinent works through their reference lists.  Thus, you take advantage of the authors' subject knowledge of their topic, and knowledge of the literature.  You can avoid problems associated with having to find the right vocabulary to search for an article, since you are not searching based on words.
  • Citation searching also allows you to focus on what the scholarly community has determined to be 'useful' in the sense that they cited it.

However, there are also hazards of relying only on citation searching.

  • The use of citations in scholarly publications vary by discipline.  Some topics and majors may not rely heavily on supporting their publications by citing the works of others. 
  • Some citation searching systems deal better with citations from certain types of sources (such as articles) and not so well with other types of sources (books, patents, etc.)
  • Citation searching will not do well in finding 'hidden' gems, or in locating relevant works from other subject fields if the author communities of the two fields are very distinct.

Citation searching and keyword searching are complementary techniques... one should not be relied upon to the exclusion of the other.