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Evaluating Information Sources

Tips on evaluating popular and scholarly articles, bias and propaganda in publishing, impact metrics and predatory publishing.

Structure of Scientific Papers

Research papers generally follow a specific format. Here are the different parts of the scholarly article.

Abstract (Summary)

The abstract, generally written by the author(s) of the article, provides a concise summary of the whole article. Usually it highlights the focus, study results and conclusion(s) of the article. 

Introduction (Why)

In this section, the authors introduce their topic, explain the purpose of the study, and present why it is important, unique or how it adds to existing knowledge in their field. Look for the author's hypothesis or thesis here. 

Introduction - Literature Review (Who else)

Many scholarly articles include a summary of previous research or discussions published on this topic, called a "Literature Review".  This section outlines what others have found and what questions still remain.

Methodology / Materials and Methods (How) 

Find the details of how the study was performed in this section. There should be enough specifics so that you could repeat the study if you wanted. 

Results  (What happened)

This section includes the findings from the study. Look for the data and statistical results in the form of tables, charts, and graphs. Some papers include an analysis here.

Discussion / Analysis (What it means)

This section should tell you what the authors felt was significant about their results. The authors analyze their data and describe what they believe it means.

Conclusion (What was learned)

Here the authors offer their final thoughts and conclusions and may include: how the study addressed their hypothesis, how it contributes to the field, the strengths and weaknesses of the study, and recommendations for future research. Some papers combine the discussion and conclusion.

Reading a Scholarly Article

A scholarly paper can be difficult to read. Instead of reading straight through, try focusing on the different sections and asking specific questions at each point.

What is your research question? 

When you select an article to read for a project or class, focus on your topic. Look for information in the article that is relevant to your research question. 

Read the abstract first as it covers basics of the article. Questions to consider: 

  • What is this article about? What is the working hypothesis or thesis?
  • Is this related to my question or area of research?

Second: Read the introduction and discussion/conclusion. These sections offer the main argument and hypothesis of the article. Questions to consider for the introduction: 

  • What do we already know about this topic and what is left to discover?
  • What have other people done in regards to this topic?
  • How is this research unique?
  • Will this tell me anything new related to my research question?

Questions for the discussion and conclusion: 

  • What does the study mean and why is it important?
  • What are the weaknesses in their argument?
  • Is the conclusion valid?

Next: Read about the Methods/Methodology. If what you've read addresses your research question, this should be your next section. Questions to consider:

  • How did the author do the research? Is it a qualitative or quantitative project?
  • What data are the study based on?
  • Could I repeat their work? Is all the information present in order to repeat it?

Finally: Read the Results and Analysis. Now read the details of this research. What did the researchers learn? If graphs and statistics are confusing, focus on the explanations around them. Questions to consider: 

  • What did the author find and how did they find it?
  • Are the results presented in a factual and unbiased way?
  • Does their analysis agree with the data presented?
  • Is all the data present?
  • What conclusions do you formulate from this data? (And does it match with the Author's conclusions?)

Review the References (anytime): These give credit to other scientists and researchers and show you the basis the authors used to develop their research.  The list of references, or works cited, should include all of the materials the authors used in the article. The references list can be a good way to identify additional sources of information on the topic. Questions to ask:

  • What other articles should I read?
  • What other authors are respected in this field?
  • What other research should I explore?

Additional Reading Tips

When you read these scholarly articles, remember that you will be writing based on what you read.

While you are Reading:

  • Keep in mind your research question
  • Focus on the information in the article relevant to your question (feel free to skim over other parts)
  • Question everything you read - not everything is 100% true or performed effectively
  • Think critically about what you read and seek to build your own arguments
  • Read out of order! This isn't a mystery novel or movie, you want to start with the spoiler
  • Use any keywords printed by the journals as further clues about the article
  • Look up words you don't know

How to Take Notes on the Article

Try different ways, but use the one that fits you best. Below are some suggestions:

  • Print the article and highlight, circle and otherwise mark while you read (for a PDF, you can use the highlight text feature in Adobe Reader)
  • Take notes on the sections, for example in the margins (Adobe Reader offers pop-up sticky notes)
  • Highlight only very important quotes or terms - or highlight potential quotes in a different color
  • Summarize the main or key points

Reflect on what you have read - draw your own conclusions. As you read jot down questions that come to mind. These may be answered later on in the article or you may have found something that the authors did not consider. Here are a few questions that might be helpful:

  • Have I taken time to understand all the terminology?
  • Am I spending too much time on the less important parts of this article?
  • Do I have any reason to question the credibility of this research?
  • What specific problem does the research address and why is it important?
  • How do these results relate to my research interests or to other works which I have read?

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