What are Seminal Works
Seminal works, sometimes called pivotal or landmark studies, are articles that initially presented an idea of great importance or influence within a particular discipline. Seminal articles are referred to time and time again in the research, so you are likely to see these sources frequently cited in other journal articles, books, dissertations, etc.
In order for a work to be considered seminal, it should have led to:
- a much higher level of understanding in the field, and/or
- a paradigm shift, and/or
- an entirely new research area
Identifying seminal articles relies heavily on your own thoroughness in the examination and synthesis of the scholarly literature. Typically, there will not be any explicit labels placed on articles, identifying them as seminal. Rather, you will begin to see the same authors or articles cited frequently. It is important to keep in mind that seminal studies may have been published quite some time ago. Limiting a database search to only the past 5 years, for example, may exclude seminal studies from your results. To avoid overlooking pivotal research that may have occurred in years past, it is recommend that you do not use a date limiter, at least at first
How to Find Seminal Works
Although identification of seminal research will occur as you progress in your research, there are additional resources that may be used to help you visualize the development of research over time, and to identify possible seminal works. These resources and search techniques are described below.
- Highly Cited - A source has been cited in many other works is one indication that a particular source is seminal. A number of our databases provide this information. For instance, when searching in Scopus, you can sort by "Cited by (highest)"
Note, though, that although all seminal articles will be highly cited, not all highly cited articles are necessarily seminal. In fact, the number of citations an article has received is not necessarily an indication of the article's quality. An article may have been mentioned in many other articles because it was particularly problematic, for example; other authors may have pointed out problems with its methodology, conclusions, etc.
- Google Scholar allows you to search across many disciplines and types of scholarly sources: articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other websites.
Like other databases, Google Scholar also identifies how many times a particular source has been cited. This will be displayed beneath the abstract/excerpt or bibliographic information, as shown below. Again, a high number of citing sources could signal a seminal work.
- Books are generally more comprehensive than scholarly articles and dissertations and provide thorough overview of a particular topic or discipline. Books are likely to identify prominent researchers in the field, and to describe key concepts and theories, or history and evolution of the field. Therefore, books may be a great place to find references to seminal research. Look for chapters on background / history / theories / etc. Also, take a look at the references which may be included at the end of individual chapters, or at the end of the book.
As an example, the book What we know about emotional intelligence: How it affects learning, work, relationships, and our mental health, identifies Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey as conducting the first systematic research on the topic of emotional intelligence (EI) with Daniel Goleman bringing it to the mainstream through the publication of his book in 1995.
- References - As you perform literature searches on a topic and read the papers compare the reference lists of those sources. The items/authors that show up repeatedly are probably key figures in the research.