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Research Basics

Nature of Scientific Communication

A typical scholarly, scientific journal article (aka “ORIGINAL RESEARCH ARTICLE” or “PRIMARY RESEARCH ARTICLE”) is PEER REVIEWED (more on this later), discusses the authors’ original research, offers thoughtful analysis of the results, and cites relevant papers from other authors that relate to the research.

A slightly different type of journal article (called a “REVIEW ARTICLE”) will not report on original research, but will outline the current state of research in a particular field, citing the appropriate literature and connecting the various pieces of research together. Review articles are generally peer reviewed.

Review articles and original research articles can often look the same at first glance, and most search engines or databases won’t tell you what type of an article it is. To tell them apart, you need to identify whether the authors are discussing their own research and experiments or someone else’s. Often, the “Materials and methods” section (aka “Experimental procedures” or something similar) will be your best clue. This section is occasionally stored online, separate from the article as a part of the “supplementary materials”.

If the authors are discussing research and experiments that they carried out, and giving you an outline of the experiment, it will be an original research article.

When you are searching for information on a research topic, you may also run across some other types of information. Shorter news articles (1-2 pages) may appear in some scientific and popular publications reporting on recent developments in a particular field, or reporting on a particular piece of research. These news articles are not peer reviewed, and are normally written by science journalists, not researchers. The news articles may be easier to read, but since they are normally one or two steps removed from the original research, a news article may not be the best source for your paper or project. However, news articles can lead you to a piece of original research, and can help you easily stay informed about recent research developments.

If you conduct your searches online, via Google, Yahoo or another popular search engine, you may find journal articles, but you may also come across other scientific information that can take many forms. Wikis, blogs and personal websites can often contain a lot of scientific information, but these resources are generally very far removed from the original research where the ideas were first developed. Each of these sources needs to be evaluated very carefully to determine if the information is credible, and these sources won’t be suitable for a research paper. There is a lot of great scientific information on the web, but there is also a lot of bad science, pseudo-science, and non-science-pretending-to-be-science available and distinguishing them can be tricky.

From "A Very Brief Introduction to the Scientific Literature," by Bonnie Swoger, September 12, 2014. Reprinted with permission. Text has been edited for brevity and clarity. Original text can be found on her website.

Peer Review

Peer review is the process that allows scientists to trust the reliability of published journal articles. Here’s how it works:

  1. A scientist submits an article to a journal saying “please publish this article.”
  2. The journal finds 2 or 3 people who know a lot about the research topic, called REVIEWERS or REFEREES, and asks them to look at the article.
  3. The reviewers look at the article carefully. They check to see if the experiment is designed and conducted well, they look at the analysis of the data, they see whether the conclusions are justified by the data, and they make sure the article can be understood by other scientists. They also make a judgment about how “important” the article is. Some journals only accept really innovative and important research, other journals accept research that advances the field just a little bit.
  4. The reviewers say “yes, we should publish this article”, “no, we shouldn’t publish this article” or “if the author makes some changes, maybe we should publish this article”
  5. If the article is published, we can say that it has been PEER REVIEWED.

Scientists rely on their colleagues, the reviewers, to make sure that good science is given a wide audience and that not-so-good science stays out of the science journals. Because blogs, wikis and personal websites don’t automatically have this expert filter, you have to do a lot more digging to determine if the information is reliable.

The only way to tell if a journal article has been peer reviewed is to look for information about the journal itself, normally on the publishers website. Most databases won’t indicate if an article is peer reviewed or not.

From "A Very Brief Introduction to the Scientific Literature," by Bonnie Swoger, September 12, 2014. Reprinted with permission. Text has been edited for brevity and clarity. Original text can be found on her website.

Types of Scientific Literature

  • Research articles (“original research articles” or “primary research articles”) – These are your standard scientific articles. Most often published in peer reviewed journals, primary research articles report on the findings of a scientists work. They will almost always include a description of how the research was done and what the results mean.
  • Review articles – These can be easily confused with primary research articles. They are also published in peer reviewed journals, but seek to synthesize and summarize the work of a particular sub-field, rather than report on new results. Review articles will often lack a “Materials and Methods” section. 
  • Editorials / Opinion / Commentary / Perspectives – An article expressing the authors view about a particular issue. This may be an issue of science policy, urging a particular research agenda, or even taking a side in a particular scientific dispute. These articles can be well researched and include a lot of citations to the peer reviewed literature, or simple items without citations. 
  • Trade publication articles – Between the standard scholarly journals (Nature) and the popular publications (Scientific American) lie the Trade publications. These publications are often aimed at medical professionals or particular disciplines. Articles in these publications may be several pages long and include a few references, but they are usually summarizing research published in other publications or reporting on industry news. 
  • News – Science news articles can be found in a wide variety of publications. Popular newspapers and magazines, trade publications and scholarly publications can all have science news articles. These articles often will refer to a recent study published as a primary research article.
  • Technical ReportsGovernment agencies and NGO’s often do scientific work. The reports they produce are not often peer reviewed, but can be an important part of the scientific literature. Reports from the World Health Organization or the USGS can provide vital information to scientists. These reports can be found in scholarly databases and on the web, and are classified by some folks as gray literature (see below).
  • Gray literature – The term “gray literature” largely refers to items that are distributed or published outside of the traditional journal and book publishers. It typically referred to items that could be difficult to find, although I believe this distinction is becoming less important as these items are now often discoverable in internet search engines.
  • Books (including reference materials like handbooks and dictionaries) – Most scientific books cannot be considered ‘primary research’. In general, they describe and interpret the primary research published in the journal articles.  
  • Dissertations / Thesis – These are the final products that result from research conducted for a PhD or a Masters degree. These items can often be very long, going into great detail about methods and with lots of appendices of data. While they undergo exhaustive review by academic advisers and committee members, they wouldn’t be considered “peer-reviewed”.

From "Types of Scientific Literature," by Bonnie Swoger, September 12, 2014. Reprinted with permission. Text has been edited for brevity and clarity. Original text can be found on her website.

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