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Academic sources

Academic sources: an overview

Academic sources

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Academic sources take many forms. You'll need to engage with a breadth of literature in order to support your own arguments and evidence your theories. To do that you'll need to look further afield than your resource lists and the Library catalogue...


Accessing academic sources (click to reveal)


Journal articles

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. 

Peer review

Peer review process

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.

Finding articles

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.

Review articles

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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Reviews

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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Literature reviews

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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Systematic reviews

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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How to read an article

Where do you start when looking at academic literature? How can you successfully engage with the literature you find? This bitesized tutorial explores the structure of academic articles, shows where to look to check the validity of findings, and offers tips for navigating online texts.

Making sense of academic sources

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.

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