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Checklist on pitfalls with bibliographic searches

With a so-called “bibliographic search” you are looking for the abstract or full-text of a scientific publication. This means, you already have at least some citation information on the publication, like author name(s), publication year, title, journal name, volume#, issue#, and/or page#.

There are some known traps and pitfalls with bibliographic searches, that I would like to share with you.

6 pitfalls for bibliographic searches …

1. Always assume a typo

Generally assume typos in either the database record of the publication, or your notes, or the original publication.

2. Do not use special characters

If the known publication title you would like to search for includes any special characters, like hyphens, colons, commas, semicolons, brackets, Greek symbols and so on and so forth, use only those parts of the title for your search which do not include any of those.

“Oral fingolimod (FTY720) in relapsingremitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS): 2Year αData efficacy results; the phase III FREEDOMS I trial”
should be searched as
“Oral fingolimod” AND “multiple sclerosis” AND “efficacy results” AND “phase III FREEDOMS I trial”

However, some literature databases handle brackets, hyphens & co. quite well. When they are phrased.

“Oral fingolimod (FTY720) in relapsingremitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS)”

By the way. In literature databases non-Latin characters (Greek symbols e.g.) are normally translated to the corresponding Latin character (α -> a) or written out (α -> alpha). Similar for local characters, like the French accents (à, á, â) that most likely will be used just as “a”.

3. Do not trust publication titles

Even if the known title of a publication can be the quickest way to identify the reference, always doubt it. If you do not find anything with it, it does not necessarily mean that the publication is not there. The source, where you have it from might have included an error, or there could be an accidental typo.

Also think about the already mentioned different notations for Greek symbols, special characters, numbers (3, III, three) or abbreviations as well as differently use blanks, that are all potential variations resp. sources of mismatches.

If you cannot pass on searching the title, the solution might be to not use the complete but just a fragment of it, which seems to be more valid (= less opportunities for variations) .

“Oral fingolimod (FTY720) in relapsingremitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS): 2-Year αData efficacy results; the phase III FREEDOMS I trial”
could be searched in the title field as
“Oral fingolimod (FTY720) in relapsingremitting multiple sclerosis”

4. Use author’s last names only

For “Jean-Paul Sartre” you would find the following alternative writings in scientific literature databases:

  • Sartre Jean-Paul
  • Sartre Jean Paul
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul
  • Sartre; Jean-Paul
  • Sartre, J-P
  • Sartre, J.-P.
  • Sartre J.-P.
  • Sartre JP
  • Sartre, JP
  • Sartre, Jean
  • Sartre Jean P.
  • Sartre, Jean-P.

Sometimes you find even in a single database notation variations of the same author’s name. So, the only stable and consistent values are the author’s last names.

5. Use sparse search values only

If you know the full citation data, a search with the first authors last name, the publication year and the first page number alone in most cases will be sufficient and bears minimum risk only for mistakes and typos.


  • author last name and starting page number (and publication year if necessary) might be sufficient already
  • volume, starting page and publication year might be sufficient already
  • volume, issue and starting page number might be sufficient already

6. Avoid journal names

Search for journal names only if there is no other opportunity to identify.

But keep in mind that there might be variations of the journal name like “Proceedings of the National Association of Science”, “Proc Nat Assoc Sci”, and “PNAS”. Better limit by clearer values, like volume number, issue number, publication year, first page number … without using the journal name.

So, and now just enjoy your next search! Try those 6 simple rules, and failure should be history.

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