Bibliography hacking

Let your sources' bibliographies do your searching for you

Do you often feel like you’re searching for sources in the all the wrong places? Or maybe you’ve been able to locate one or two relevant sources but are struggling to find additional ones? If so, the bibliography hacking method might be worth a try! 

What is bibliography hacking? 

Bibliography hacking is a technique you can use with any scholarly article or book you’ve found that is relevant to your topic. Put simply, it means that you comb through a work’s bibliography to pick out sources that might be relevant to your own paper and then find and read those sources as well. Basically, you’re letting the author of the current work do some of your searching legwork for you. 

Picking out relevant sounding titles 

While going through the bibliography, take a quick look at the title of each work to assess its relevance. If a journal or series name is also available, examine these as well. In contrast to when you do an initial database or library catalog search, try to find sources that are as close as possible to your topic. For example, if your research topic is food security in the EU and you find an article entitled “European food scares and their impact on EU food policy” from the British Food Journal, it may be a good fit. However, if you find an article entitled “Westernization of Asian diets and the transformation of food systems: Implications for research and policy” from the journal “Chinese Food Journal” it might be too far off of your topic 

Of course, just identifying potentially useful articles isn’t enough – you will still need to try to obtain a copy of the item, and you may later find that it is not that useful after all. Still, this method can save you time searching for additional articles, and it can give you some useful leads if you’re having a lot of trouble finding pertinent sources on your topic. I remember successfully using this technique back in graduate school when writing a paper on grangerized books. Back then, I had a lot of trouble at the beginning identifying relevant sources, but after finding one good source, it led me down a rabbit hole of additional sources I could use that then led to other sources, which then led to more sources. In the end I had identified a collection of relevant sources, including some of the key works on the topic. 

If you’re writing a literature review, pay special attention to the citations that are given in either the introduction or review section of the article, especially for important concepts or experiments. In the introduction or literature review section of the paper, you will likely find references to seminal works in the field that you might also want to cite in your own paper. Sometimes you will even have the whole history of a field traced out for you. Especially if you see the same works cited in multiple papers, it’s very likely that they are important.  

In addition to using the bibliography to find direct leads to other sources, you might also be able to use it more indirectly to find key authors in on your topic or key journals, which can in turn lead you to additional sources. 

Frequently cited authors 

Is there an author cited more than once in the bibliography or an author who has written something that relates directly to your topic? Try to see if you can find information on the author. Have they written other articles on similar topics? Do they seem to be a key researcher in the field? Do a Google search to see if you can find them online. On their university profile page, many researchers will include a link to a list of their publications. Scan the list to see if the author has written other relevant works on your topic. 

Finding journals 

Even if a bibliography entry’s title doesn’t seem relevant, check what journal it was published in. Especially if you’re not already familiar with the key journals in the field your topic is part of, you can scan the bibliography and pick out journal names that seem to come up often or be especially relevant. Then, check if you have access to the journal through your university and browse some of its recent articles. 

Obtaining a copy 

After you’ve identified some articles you want to read for potential use in your own paper, you need to track them down and get a copy of them. How can you do that? 

First, check your library website. There should be someplace where you can do a journal search to see if you have access to the journal through your university. Sometimes, certain databases will provide access only for a certain span of time for a particular journal. For example, the most recent issues of a journal might not be available.  

If you do have access, click the link to the journal and then search for the title or author of your article. After that, download the full-text copy of the article. 

What if you don’t have full-text access? If your library offers an SFX service, you might see a link that lets you place an order for the article using interlibrary loan. If you don’t have such a link, check with a librarian to see if they can order the article for you.  

Bibliography hacking with Citavi 

Citavi makes bibliography hacking even easier. For sources that are books or journal articles, you can use Citavi’s Search bibliography feature to add citation information to your project. In a second step you can then track down a copy of the works you want to read. 

Here’s how the process looks in Citavi if you have a journal article in PDF format: 

  1. Add the PDF to Citavi if you haven’t already, and then open it in the Preview pane. If Citavi can’t find information for the PDF, copy the necessary information into the corresponding fields. 
  2. Highlight a source you want to search for or highlight the entire bibliography.
  3. On the More menu, click Search bibliography.
  4. Next, make sure that each bibliography entry is in its own paragraph with an empty line in between each entry. You can also delete any entries you don’t want to search for at this point.
  5. If your sources are primarily journal articles, leave just the first two boxes checked. If your sources are a mix of books and articles, keep at least the “WorldCat” library catalog checked and then select a relevant national or shared library catalog if you want. Please note that selecting all the available options will likely lead to more false positives. 
  6. After Citavi searches for the sources it will display the results.  
  7. Go through each of the results and double-check that the correct source was found. For sources that could not be found, move the information from the Notes field into the correct fields.  
  8. After that, select the journal articles that you want to get a copy of, and use Citavi’s Find full text feature to locate the full text. For books, use the Find library locations feature.  

Please note that since entries in a bibliography are not saved in specific fields, Citavi is not able to parse and search for the data as accurately as it can if the data is in a more structured format, such as RIS or BibTeX. Also, information might not be in one of the databases searched. This means that success rates using this method are fairly low at around 60%. However, even if Citavi can’t find a source, you at least have all the information in the Notes field and can then copy it to the correct field.  

How can I find later articles that cited my article? 

If your starting source is a little bit older, you might be wondering if there’s also a way to find articles written later on that cite it. There is indeed a way to do this but that’s a topic for another blog article...


Have you ever used the bibliography hacking method in the past? Did you find it useful? Let us know on our Facebook page

Created by: Jennifer Schultz – Published on: 3/26/2019
Tags: Finding sources Graduate students

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

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