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Doing Research at the Library of Congress

V. Citation Searches

Citation searching is a way to do subject searches for journal articles, in a way that uses neither subject headings nor keywords--which circumvents the limitations of both of these more conventional methods of searching. To do a citation search you must start out with a relevant work on your topic that you've already identified as useful. Your starting point source can be a book, a journal or magazine article, a dissertation, an unpublished manuscript--or just about any other source. Moreover, it can be either recent or hundreds of years old; the date does not matter. A citation search will tell you if someone has written a subsequent journal article which cites that source in a footnote. A subsequent work that cites an earlier work is usually "in the same subject ballpark." The advantage of doing citation searching is that you do not have to find any correct subject headings, nor do you have to worry about keyword synonyms or variants.

It is useful to think of citation searching as a kind of mirror-image of footnote chasing. That is, whenever you read a scholarly source you will naturally look at its footnotes, as avenues to related sources. Remember, however, that footnotes always lead you, in effect, backwards in time, to previous sources. Citation searching, in contrast, effectively takes you forwards in time, to subsequent sources.

The best starting point for citation searches is the Web of Science database, which, again, covers over 8,500 scholarly journals from all over the world. This is a very expensive subscription service that, while freely accessible within the Library's reading rooms, cannot be freely tapped into via the Internet. Check with reference librarians on the years of coverage included in the Library's subscription. Until the Library gets a full backfile of this database in its online subscription format, earlier years of coverage are available in either CD-ROM or printed formats.

Some other databases, beyond Web of Science, also allow you to do citation searches. Sociological Abstracts, for example, available through the Cambridge Scientific Abstracts (CSA) Internet Database Service now offers citation searching in addition to keyword and descriptor access. Some of the EBSCOhost databases (e.g., Communication and Mass Media Complete) also allow citation searching. The point to note, though, is that the pool of "citing" sources in these systems is currently much smaller than the 8,500 journal pool of the Web of Science. Still, competitive coverage will grow in future years.

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  December 1, 2016
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