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Research: What is Seminal Research?

Define Seminal Research

Seminal Studies or Seminal Research is defined by its influential nature on a topic.  They are studies that originally provided new or unique insights, methodologies, or results that have gone on to provide a foundation for future research.  Seminal works, also known as pivotal studies or landmark studies are studies that create a framework that newer studies build on.  They tend to be referenced time and again and even mentioned in textbooks.  As you begin your research you will typically find the authors, article titles, or the study name mentioned repeatedly.  Most Seminal Studies were originally published some time ago but will be continually mentioned in the works cited or reference pages.  If you limit your search by date you may not find the original seminal study but you can find reference to the work and then preform a search for the older work (REMEMBER: if you need help ask a librarian).

Seminal Sources

  • Create a much higher level of understanding in the field, and/or offer a paradigm shift for the topic, and/or open an entirely new research area
  • Establish the background of the problem.
  • Connect the current research to past research.
  • Offer origin of theories, terms, and frameworks.
  • Are usually older than 5 years.

Identifying Seminal/Landmark Studies

Identifying landmark/seminal studies is a process, a part of the research process, and relies on your thoroughness as a researcher.  Typically landmark/ seminal studies are not labeled as such but can be identified through continued reading and comparing of articles. Below are a few ways to find the elements of your topic.

  1.  Read your textbook (and/or suggested readings from your professor).  Ask your professor.  Your textbook was written (and chosen by your professor) to highlight key moments in the area of study, and offer information on the history, notable figures, and related vocabulary.  Don't be afraid to talk to your professor, for names to look for, articles to read, or any other hints they can offer you.
  2. Do a search in the Library Catalog. Academic books on your topic are usually more comprehensive than an article and often, like textbooks, include an overview of your topic.  A book is likely to provide basic history for the field and topic, identify key researchers (the people who have written landmark studies), and define concepts and theories. Use the table of contents and index to find where your topic may be discussed, as well as any names or theories.
  3. Do a google search for your topic.  Find the simple web pages, articles, etc. that discuss your topic.  You can find information on the history of your topic, they may discuss key elements, influential people such as the father of a method, or a key finding or theory.  This is the beginning of your research (do not stop here!) process and will offer you terms, dates, and other information to search within a library database for scholarly articles.
  4. Begin your research in an appropriate database (if you are unsure where to start ask a librarian what database would best suit your topic) with some of the key terms you learned in the background research.  Starting with a broad search for your topic will create the most results and adding in additional search terms will focus your search towards your topic and finding seminal or landmark studies

What is a Seminal Source?

"In terms of research, a seminal source refers to a key researcher, research study, model, or theory. Here potent means original and deeply influential. An example of a seminal researcher is Edward Deci. Few people know his name, but the term intrinsic motivation might be familiar. Deci was one of the first and most influential researchers to experimentally explore the construct of intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Clearly reading his work may help a researcher better understand the notion of intrinsic motivation." 

From Greenberg, S. (2015). Foundations of empirical research. In Grand Canyon University (Ed.), GCU doctoral research: foundations & theories

Finding Seminal or Landmark Studies

The best way to recognize a study is to look at the bibliography of several articles on the same subject. If the same article (researcher or study) is cited in most or all of the articles, it is very likely that you have found a landmark study.

Another way to check to see if the article you have found is a landmark study is to do a Cited Reference Search in Web of Science, or Google Scholar. Landmark studies will be cited by hundreds of other articles.

It is important to note that seminal or landmark studies have been published many years ago and if you are limiting your search by date you may miss the original study in your results.  You may still find references to the original landmark study in newer articles.

  • Highly Cited - A source that has been cited in many other works is one indication that a particular source may be a seminal study. A number of our databases provide this information. For instance, when searching in Web of Science, you can sort by "Cited by (highest)"

NOTE: 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.