Types of Scholarly Literature
You will encounter many types of articles and it is important to distinguish between these different categories of scholarly literature. Keep in mind the following definitions.
Peer-reviewed (or refereed): Refers to articles that have undergone a rigorous review process, often including revisions to the original manuscript, by peers in their discipline, before publication in a scholarly journal. This can include empirical studies, review articles, meta-analyses among others.
Empirical study (or primary article): An empirical study is one that aims to gain new knowledge on a topic through direct or indirect observation and research. These include quantitative or qualitative data and analysis. In science, an empirical article will often include the following sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.
Review article: In the scientific literature, this is a type of article that provides a synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. These are useful when you want to get an idea of a body of research that you are not yet familiar with. It differs from a systematic review in that it does not aim to capture ALL of the research on a particular topic.
Systematic review: This is a methodical and thorough literature review focused on a particular research question. It's aim is to identify and synthesize all of the scholarly research on a particular topic in an unbiased, reproducible way to provide evidence for practice and policy-making. It may involve a meta-analysis (see below).
Meta-analysis: This is a type of research study that combines or contrasts data from different independent studies in a new analysis in order to strengthen the understanding of a particular topic. There are many methods, some complex, applied to performing this type of analysis.
Not all scientific studies are created equal! Study design can impact the strength and quality of evidence that a study holds. This 'Evidence Pyramid' depicts the levels of evidence provided by different types of studies and information. The wide base of the pyramid indicates that there are many editorials and expert opinions, but that they provide the weakest evidence to inform policy and decision-making. There are many fewer systematic reviews on a topic, but these represent the pinnacle of research evidence.
The CRAAP Test
- When it comes to health, you often need current, up-to-date information. Check the website for a copyright date, or 'last updated' date, often at the very bottom of the page.
- Try the links on the page. If many of them are 'broken', it's likely that the page has not been updated or maintained.
- Check that the information is relevant to your question. Choose your search terms carefully to retrieve the most relevant results.
- Who is the intended audience of the website? Is the information meant for health consumers (lay people) or health professionals?
- A good website will provide clear information as to the author/owner of the site and the source of the information. You should be able to find an 'About' link somewhere on the page.
- Legitimate sites often provide contact information.
- The web address can be a clue to authorship: .edu indicates an educational institution and .gov indicates a government website.
- The accuracy of the information can be difficult to determine, but some clues may be a warning sign. Trust your judgement and beware of sites that make health claims that you know to be false or that are debunked by another reliable, trustworthy source.
- Beware of biased or opinionated language.
- Steer clear of websites that are poorly written, full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, or lots of exclamation points.
- The purpose of a reliable health information website should be to teach or inform. The information should be objective and impartial.
- Beware of sites whose primary purpose seems to be selling products, entertaining, or sites that are strongly biased or opinionated.