Academic literature takes many forms. What constitute scholarly sources of information, and how do we choose between them? In this, the first of our "Let's get critical" critical reading theme, we get to grips with the principles of evaluating information and work out how to determine their suitability.
One of the most common academic sources is the journal article. Researchers publish their research in academic journals which usually cover a specific discipline. Some journals have stronger reputations and more rigorous editorial controls than others.
Most good quality journals (and even some bad ones) employ a process called peer-review whereby submitted articles are vetted by a panel of fellow experts in the field. The peer-review panel may demand extensive re-writes of an article to bring it to an acceptable standard for publication. Flaws in the methodology may be highlighted and the author will then have to address these in the text. The result should be that the published work is reliable and of a high standard, and this is usually the case (though not always, as this blog post on the problems with Peer Review explains). Many databases will let you filter to exclude work that hasn't been peer-reviewed.
You could read every journal that's published on your subject, but that's probably a lot of journals. Fortunately, there are databases which catalogue the contents of a selection of journals. You can search these databases to find the articles that will be of use to you.
Several things get called reviews and all of them can turn up in databases.
Search limits in databases will let you refine your search, and you can often use these tools to include (or exclude) particular types of study.
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We're all familiar with things like film and music reviews: "This album is amazing! 5 stars!"
Articles like this occasionally show up in academic databases. You might even get a journal article reviewing another journal article.
Be alert to this. It's easy to waste time and energy on an article only to find that it's actually just a review of a different article.
But reviewing other literature as a whole is a big feature of the academic landscape, and one to be aware of.
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Some types of article seek to find as much published research as possible on a topic and look for corroborations in the findings. The scale of such reviews can vary dramatically. Some form of literature review is a commonplace feature of most research articles, as well as in dissertations and theses: it's important to establish the background to the author's own research, and how that research relates to the work that has gone before. But literature reviews can be research projects in themselves, and some of the articles you may encounter will be such literature reviews.
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A lot of things get called systematic reviews without actually being systematic reviews. Simple literature reviews, for instance, might aspire to the badge. But systematic reviews do more than simply identify and summarise existing publications. High quality systematic reviews of complex questions can involve large teams of researchers and can take months or even years to complete.They will seek out all literature on a topic (potentially even unpublished evidence), assessing the quality of each study and synthesizing the findings in an effort to determine a corroborative "truth" of the matter.
Systematic reviews are particularly a feature of medicine. Let's imagine Medicine X has been trialed in 10 different studies. The systematic review will dig out all 10 studies, assess the quality of those studies (perhaps discarding any that were insufficiently rigorous), and collate the findings. In such a way it is possible to establish, with increased confidence, the efficacy (or not) of Medicine X.
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What is considered an appropriate academic source will vary according to discipline and topic.
Some material is what is known as grey literature: organisational reports, projects, leaflets, etc., published outside normal academic publishing and distribution channels. Such documents are often found in the 'publications' sections of organisational websites.
Websites and newspapers may also offer academically relevant material, but often have a narrow focus and are more likely to demonstrate bias. They may offer insight into public (or establishment) opinion.
Official reports (e.g. government or think-tank studies) and legislation may also be of value.
Some research will be presented at a conference and published as conference proceedings. These are often indexed with journals.
Theses or dissertations are another form of research output, and will often be found on a University repository like White Rose Research Online.
In the arts, performance, artefacts or compositions will be of relevance, as will reviews of previous works.
Particularly in humanities subjects, maps and archive materials may be of use.
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