Research results are often published in articles in scientific journals, which provide explicit guidelines for what kind of research is published in the particular journal, and how submitted manuscripts are reviewed by experts. This is usually called peer review or refereeing. The review procedure is usually described on journal homepages. You can use the database Ulrichsweb to find out if a particular journal is refereed.
Other research publications, such as doctoral dissertations, and some conference papers, are also subject to similar requirements. Conference homepages often provide information about which papers that have been peer reviewed and contain new research results.
In many databases, it is possible to limit the search to articles from journals that have peer review. Just be aware that although the journal has a review procedure, some parts of the journal might be excluded from that procedure, like letters or editorial material.
The Nordic lists
The Nordic lists can be used to check the scientificity of a publishing channel, such as a journal, conference or publisher. The lists are based on assessments made by expert groups. If a publication channel is included in the lists at level 1 or higher, the publication channel must have a certain scientific quality. However, you must also evaluate the specific article or conference paper, even if the journal or conference is included in one or more of the lists.
Structure of scientific documents, IMRaD
In many research areas, scientific documents are usually structured according to IMRaD - Introduction, Method, Results and Discussion. This structure is reflected in the disposition and the headings.
The introduction in an academic paper is meant to swiftly and clearly introduce the topic of the report. In addition to this, there are usually concept definitions and a basis for problem statements inspired by previous research. Potential theories which provide a basis for research limitations and perspectives may also be introduced before the presentation of the actual investigation. A clear aim is an important part of the paper. The aim (objectives) briefly points at expected conclusions of the report. The aim is usually followed by one or several specific research questions.
This section contains justifications for, and descriptions of, the procedures that lead to some kind of results. Whether the paper is based on some form of empirical studies (interviews, surveys, observations, measurements ...) or accounts for a systematic review of previous research, it should contain a section on method. If the paper accounts for a systematic literature review, there should be a description of the information seeking procedure.
The methods applied guide data gathering and analysis which produce some kind of results. The results provide answers to the questions which have been stated in the paper. Depending on what kind of investigation has been made, the results section may e.g. contain tables, diagrams, images or quotations from interviews.
The ultimate goal of research – new knowledge and new insights – is usually achieved through a discussion based on the results.
References and appendices
Throughout an academic paper there are explicit references to all the sources that have been used. Every published source (books, articles, conference papers etc.) which is cited in the text should be included in a reference list at the end of the paper. In the end of the paper, potential appendices can be found.
Primary sources and secondary sources
You should preferably use primary sources to the research results that you potentially want to cite, and avoid secondary sources as much as possible. A primary source can be for example an original article in a scientific journal, a conference paper, a research report or a dissertation. Textbooks (written for purely educational purposes) are generally not primary sources. This is also the case when it comes to popular scientific publications.
When reliability and usefulness are to be evaluated, it is wise to ask some questions about the document.
Source of information
Where did you get the document from? What databases or search engines have been used? Do the databases have scientific content? How does the ranking in the database work?
Who is the publisher of the document? If it is a journal, is it indexed in any databases? One should keep in mind, though, that even if a publisher has a good reputation, a single work does not necessarily live up to high standards.
Who is the author? What does the author's background look like? Is the author affiliated with any institution or organization? If that is the case: what values or aims are pursued by the institution or organization? What has she/he written before, what experiences and education does she/he possess? Has the author been cited in other sources or bibliographies?
What is the purpose of the document? Are the contents factual or aimed at creating a public opinion? Do the contents seem reliable and based on thorough research, or is it ill-founded and possible to put into question? Is the view of the author objective and unpartial? Is the language free from strong emotional expressions and preconceived conceptions? Are the results and conclusions reasonable? Is there anything controversial?
Date of publication
When was the source published? Is the source up to date enough for your purposes? Some subject domains, e.g. the natural sciences, tend to demand relatively new sources, while some fields within e.g. the humanities may use older sources.
Facts from other sources
Facts which you may have to reproduce are not always the product of scientific investigations. Non-scientific facts as well should never the less be evaluated regarding reliability and usefulness. It is thus wise to keep more general guidelines for source criticism in mind.
More about scientific publications
- Evaluating information (Guide from Karolinska Institutet)
- Is this a scholarly (peer reviewed) article? How can I find out? (Guide from Malmö University) (pdf)
Reflections on ethical issues when reading research publications
All academic writing and scientific publishing strongly imply openness and honesty.
Research publications and ethics
Particular ethical requirements are added when research involves human beings and animals. Ethical guidelines and committees are thus available within some research areas. Below you find links to some of the most important.
You will find scientific articles, conference papers and books when searching different databases. When you have found an article or other material, you have to make your own assessment, for example as to whether the material is scientific or not. To help with the assessment, there are various things to look out for.