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.

Primary vs. Secondary Research Articles

You've been asked to find at least one primary research articles. Primary sources in this case:

  • are original scientific reports of new research findings
  • usually include the following sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, References
  • are peer-reviewed (examined by expert(s) in the field before publication).

You may also choose to use some secondary sources (summaries or interpretations of original research) such as books (find these through the library catalog) or review articles (articles which organize and critically analyze the research of others on a topic). These secondary sources are often useful and easier-to-read summaries of research in an area. Additionally, you can use the listed references to find useful primary research articles.

The Digital Rare and Distinctive Collections library guide provides more information on the differences between primary and secondary articles.

How Can I Tell if It's Peer-Reviewed

There are a couple of ways you can tell if a journal is peer-reviewed:

  • If it's online, go to the journal home page and check under About This Journal. Often the brief description of the journal will note that it is peer-reviewed or refereed or will list the Editors or Editorial Board.
  • Go to the database Ulrich's and do a Title Keyword search for the journal. If it is peer-reviewed or refereed, the title will have a little umpire shirt symbol by it.
  • BE CAREFUL! A journal can be refereed/peer-reviewed and still have non-peer-reviewed articles in it. Generally if the article is an editorial, brief news item or short communication, it's not been through the full peer-reviewprocess. Databases like Web of Knowledge will let you restrict your search only to articles (and not editorials, conference proceedings, etc).

How to read and comprehend scientific articles

This video from the University of Minnesota Libraries explains how to read scientific articles.

Reading Scientific Articles: Some Questions to Ask

1) Were the experiments carried out according to the scientific method? Is the sample size appropriate? Was a control group used? Were the presented data statistically treated? Were the experiments well standardized?

2) Were the conclusions derived from the results of the reported experiments?

3) Were statements not based on experiments supported by scientific article references?

4) Is the abstract appropriate? Does the title describe the article content?

5) Were the keywords well selected?

6) Are the references current?

7) Was the research subject relevant from either the social or academic viewpoint?

8) Does the article contribute new information or does it repeat what is known?

From De Avila, P., & Torres, B. B. (2010). Introducing undergraduate students to science. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 38(2), 70-78.

Additional Resources for Evaluating Information