To assess the relevance and quality of the source, there are various things to look out for and ask questions about. For example, it can entail checking that the articles in a journal have been peer reviewed and that the document adheres to a certain format. It is also important to consider the aim of the text you are reading, where you searched for the article or found the article, the author’s background, what the language is like etc.
Different types of information
Scientific information is typically characterised by the fact that it is published in scientific publications by researchers within various subject areas. Different types of scientific publications include, for example, articles, conference papers and theses.
You might also need to use other types of sources in your studies, such as information from authorities and organisations.
Disinformation and misinformation
Disinformation is false information that has deliberately been spread with an aim to influence and mislead the receiver. Misinformation entails information that is incorrect or false but where the sender is not aware of this. Read more about disinformation and misinformation on the University of Borås website.
A critical approach
To differentiate between different types of information, you should adopt a critical approach. When it comes to scientific publications and other sources you need in your studies, it is important to learn to differentiate between different types of publications and how you examine and assess the material you want to use.
Scientific journals in which scientific articles are published have clear guidelines concerning the type of research to be published and how submitted manuscripts are reviewed by experts. This is known as peer review or referee review. In the Ulrichsweb database (external link), you can search for journals and check if peer review has been applied. The review procedure is usually available on the journal’s website.
Similar demands are required of other types of research publications, such as doctoral theses and certain conference contributions. The conference website will state which contributions have been through the peer reviewing process.
In many databases, it is possible to limit a search for material from publications that have been peer reviewed. Remember, however, that even if a publication has a peer review procedure, it is only the scientific articles that are peer reviewed. A scientific journal contains various types of material, for example, letters and editorials; these are not peer reviewed.
IMRaD – structure in scientific documents
Within many fields of research, it is common that scientific documents adhere to an IMRaD structure, i.e., a structure that includes introduction, method, result and discussion (IMRaD). This is often seen in the structure and headings. Within some fields, the letter ‘a’ in IMRaD represents analysis. In many fields of research, a theory section is also included. Most studies also include an abstract and a list of references.
Scientific articles often include an abstract, i.e., a summary of the article’s contents; this is usually placed at the beginning of the article.
In the introduction section, the subject is to be clearly presented. In connection with this, there are often definitions of concepts and a research base for the problem at hand that is grounded in previous research. Theories that may form a base for limitations and perspectives may also be included here. The introduction also includes the aim that specifies the type of conclusions that the study may expect, followed by one or several specific research questions.
In the method section, the approach used in the data compilation is motivated and accounted for. This is done irrespective of whether the study is based on empirical material (such as interviews, surveys, observations, measurements) or is a systematic review of previously published research. If the work is a systematic study of the literature, then there should be an account of how the information search was conducted.
The results of the study are given based on the approach that was presented in the method section. The results form the basis for the answer to the research question or questions which were presented in the work. Depending on the type of investigation, the results section may include tables, diagrammes, pictures or interview quotations.
The discussion section leads to the conclusions based on the results of the study.
References and Appendices
Throughout academic work, there are clear references to all the sources used. All sources that are referred to in the text are to be given in the list of references at the end of the work. Finally, any appendices are usually found at the end.
Primary and secondary sources
A primary source, for example, can be an original article in a scientific journal, a conference paper, a research report or a thesis. In an original article, research results are presented publicly for the first time. Refer preferably to primary sources when you refer to research results.
Course literature is usually not a primary source but a secondary source in which research is reproduced. Also popular scientific productions are secondary sources. Secondary sources are based on primary sources and include interpretations and summaries of these. An example of a scientific secondary source is review articles.
A publication’s author and H-index
To get more knowledge about the material you are reading, it is good to investigate the author more closely.
- Who conducted the study or wrote the book?
- What is the author’s background; has the person any connection to a department or organisation, so-called affiliation?
- Which values and aims does the department or organisation have that the author belongs to?
- What has this person published previously within this area?
- What is the person’s competence within the area included in the article?
In Scopus and Web of Science databases it is possible to search for publications and get information concerning the authors’ affiliations and previous publications. It is also possible to get information about what a researcher has published in Google Scholar and on the ORCiD website.
An H-index is a measure of how much a researcher has been cited in relation to the number of publications the researcher has written. An H-index for a researcher varies depending on which source is used (e.g., Web of Science, Scopus or Google Scholar) to calculate the H-index. This, in turn, depends on the fact that the starting point differs between the various databases. It is not advisable to compare different people’s H-indexes with each other as the H-index depends, for example, on how long a researcher has been active and which field of research the researcher belongs to. In addition, it is not possible to say what is a high or good H-index.
A publication’s contents and how current the publication is
The contents of publications
General questions to consider for contents in documents and publications:
- What is the aim of the document?
- Are the contents based on facts or are they to create opinion?
- Is the author’s view objective and impartial?
- Are other sources clearly and consistently given?
- Is the language factual and correct?
- Does the work have a clear structure?
- What is the target group?
Questions to consider about the contents in scientific publications:
- Is it clear how the study was conducted?
- Are the results and conclusions reasonable?
- Is there anything controversial?
- Has the study been ordered by someone who may be interested in which results are presented?
Certain subject areas, for example, within the natural sciences and information technology, have higher demands on a source being relatively recent. Other areas, such as the humanities, can use older sources. Note that the time between a researcher conducts a study and the time it is published can be long, in certain cases, several years.
- When was the document published, is it recent enough?
- Is the method used still current?
- Has a lot happened within the area since the study was conducted?
Publication, source of information and indexing
A publisher may be a publishing company, an organisation or an authority.
- Which publishing company has published the journal/book?
- Is the publishing company specialised in publishing scientific material?
The Nordic lists can be used to check the scientific value of a publication channel, for example, a journal, conference, or publishing company. Remember that you must also examine and assess, for example, the article itself or conference proceedings, even if the journal or conference is included in one or several of the lists.
- Norwegian list (external link) (journals, series, publishing companies)
- Finnish list (external link) (journals, series, publishing companies, conferences)
Source of information
- Where was the document accessed?
- Which databases and search engines have you used?
- Are there scientific contents in the databases?
- How are the search hit lists ranked, which hits come first?
Indexing of journals
Is the journal included, is it indexed, in a database? In the Ulrichsweb database (external link), you can search for journals and see in which databases they are indexed.
Impact factor and citations
The Web of Science database includes the impact factor, which is based on how much a journal’s articles are cited during a specific period of time. The results are presented in ranking lists based on the subject area. The lists are divided into quartiles in which a journal can appear in the first, second, third or fourth quartile depending on its impact. The highest ranked appear in the first quartile.
Note that it is not possible to compare impact factor between journals in different subject areas as the subject areas have different traditions for citation. The impact factor does not include quality of a specific article, each article should be examined independently.
In Scopus, there is a similar factor, SCImago Journal Rank Indicator (SJR).
In the Scopus and Web of Science databases, it is possible to see an article’s citations. A citation shows that others researchers have observed a certain publication. A publication can be of interest for various reasons. One reason can be to show the quality of the publication, and another can be to discuss weaknesses in the quality. It can also be done to show knowledge of a study, or for other reasons.
Research funding and ethical questions
Who or what has funded the study that is reported? Is it public funding, for example, from The Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet), Swedish Knowledge Foundation (KK-stiftelsen) or Region Västra Götaland? Or is it private funding, for example, from a company or organisation? Is it possible that the person or persons funding the study may influence the choice of results that the researchers presented? Are there any ideological motives and/or economic interests that can have had an influence?
Ethical questions when assessing
All scientific publication has high demands on openness and honesty. Specific ethical demands are included when the research concerns people and animals. Consequently, there are ethical guidelines and committees for certain research areas. Below there are links to some of the most important. These can be useful when reflecting on ethical considerations while assessing articles and other research publications.
More information concerning source criticism and assessment of publications