There’s a lot of information about dog behaviour on the internet, but not all of it is good. Learning how to find scientific papers can help you fact-check claims and avoid following bad advice.
In this post I’m going to explain why peer-reviewed papers are the current gold standard, and talk you through some of the ways you can look for evidence on a particular topic. Look out for next week’s post too, in which I’ll be explaining how to interpret the papers you find.
Publishing and Open Access
Many scientific papers are published in journals that can only be read if you pay a huge fee, or belong to an institution that subscribes to that journal. This means that the vast majority of people do not have access to the most current science.
Despite its drawbacks, publishing in journals is a mainstay of science, and has proven useful for upholding standards of research. Essentially, any journal worth its salt will only accept papers that have been reviewed by other scientists and deemed to contain ‘good science’. This process is called peer review. If a papers is accepted by a peer-reviewed journal, it is more likely that the paper describes high quality research.
Although I can appreciate the advantages of this system, I have always been frustrated by the fact that the majority of scientific findings are out of public reach. For dog science, this is particularly vexing, as discoveries that could make a world of difference to the welfare of dogs are not readily available to dog owners and carers.
Luckily, the status quo is being challenged by the science communication (#scicomm) movement, and ‘open access’ publishing is one of the ways in which science is becoming publically accessible. Journals that publish open access papers charge the authors instead of the readers, meaning that anyone can download and read papers free of charge.
So now that it’s possible for anyone with an internet connection to get their hands on some good science, how do we go about it?
Searching for a Scientific Paper
There are many ways to go about searching for scientific papers, but Google Scholar is probably the most user-friendly and powerful search tool.
To start your search, consider the most effective search terms for the topic you are interested in. For example, if I want to find out about dog bites, I would be looking to try out different search terms such as ‘dog’, ‘canine’, ‘bite’, ‘bites’, ‘aggression’ and ‘aggressive behaviour’. Scientific papers don’t tend to use emotionally charged terms, so I probably wouldn’t include ‘dog attack’ or ‘maul’ as possible search terms.
Input your terms into Google Scholar. You can combine them using AND/OR, as seen in the example search below. We want at least one of the terms in brackets (bites OR ‘aggressive behaviour’ OR aggression) AND we want to make sure that we get a majority of dog papers. You can find more advanced search tips here.
Selecting a Paper to Read
When your search is returned, the titles will obviously give you an idea of how relevant different papers are, but you should also favour papers that have been recently published over those that were published many years ago. This is because research often builds on the findings of previous studies, so the most recent research is more likely to reflect current understanding.
If the paper you find is open access, you should have no trouble reading it or downloading it onto your computer following links for the pdf version.
If the paper is not open access, you could always email the author to ask if they could provide it. This is usually quite successful – researchers love to hear from people who want to read their work!
Once you’ve found a paper in the area you’re interested in, you can look at the reference section of that paper to find other papers that will discuss similar topics.
Check back next week for a summary of how to read and interpret a scientific paper. In the meantime let me know if you are able to find papers, or if the papers you are interested in always seem to be behind the dreaded pay wall.
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