Information can be found in many different types of sources and different sources are suitable for different purposes. If you want to quickly find out facts about a subject that you don't know anything about, Wikipedia and other encyclopaedia are useful. For students who want to learn a new subject, a textbook is a good option. For a patient who has been afflicted by illness, Vårdguiden and other sources are particularly useful. However, not all sources contain reliable information.
These questions can help you to evaluate whether the information is reliable:
- Who has produced the information? Is any person or organisation stated as being responsible for the information? If so, do you know anything about the person or organisation? Does the person or organisation have knowledge about this field?
- What is the purpose of the information? Is the purpose to inform, convince, or market something?
- When was the information published or updated? Is the information still up to date?
- Was the information reviewed before it was published?
- Are there sources and references? Are these sources up to date and relevant?
What is a scientific article?
A scientific article is an article that presents research. The article is published in a scientific journal and thereby becomes accessible for other researchers and interested parties. Within the field of biomedicine, scientific articles are the most important way of publishing research. Scientific journals have an editorial office that decides which of the articles they receive are to be published.
Most scientific journals also use peer review. That means that submitted articles are reviewed and approved by experts in the field in question. How do you know if an article has been peer reviewed? Sometimes it is stated in the article. Another way to find out if a journal uses peer review is to look at its website.
Scientific articles are characterised by a formal, objective style of writing. The research process must be described so clearly that other researchers can follow how the researcher has gone about his/her work. The researcher states clearly whenever reference is made to other people’s work. When you write a degree project and other lengthy essays at KI, scientific articles are usually the most important sources.
For tips on how to find out whether an article has been peer reviewed, look at the blog entry Has the article been peer reviewed? (in Swedish).
In original articles, the results of empirical research studies are presented for the first time. Most original articles have a clear structure which also reflects the different stages of the research process. This structure is usually called IMRaD, an acronym created from the article's four main parts:
- Abstract. An abstract is a short summary of the content of the article. Often, the structure of the abstract is the same as for the whole article: introduction, methods, results and discussion. Next to the article, the author usually states the keywords that describe the article's subject matter in a more condensed form.
- Introduction. The introduction describes the purpose of the study and the author's research questions. Any limitations are stated here. Sometimes the most important results are also presented here. The introduction usually includes background information to help the reader gain an insight into the subject area.
- Methods (sometimes Material and Methods). The methods section describes the methods used – quantitative or qualitative. The description must be so detailed and precise that the research process can be followed and repeated. The methods used must be reasonable in relation to what is being studied.
- Results. Here the research findings are presented in a general way without repeating anything already stated in the article. Significant data are presented in the text or in tables and figures. Unexpected or negative results are also described.
- Discussion. This section consists of a discussion of the principles, relationships and generalisations that were proven in the results section. Attention is given to exceptions, lack of coherence, and any weaknesses in the study. This is where epistemological, ethical and societal issues are put forward. The research conclusions must be easy to follow in relation to the observed data.
- Acknowledgements. Here, the author mentions people who have provided different kinds of support during the work process: personal, professional, technical or financial support. Everyone who is mentioned should have been informed.
- References. The list of references compiles all the references mentioned in the article to enable the reader to go back to the sources.
Review articles compile and review results from several original articles. They are very useful as a means of gaining an insight into a certain field. Systematic literature reviews are a special kind of review article. In a systematic literature review, the researchers have systematically identified and evaluated all the articles that are of relevance to their research question. Systematic literature reviews play an important role in evidence-based healthcare because they compile the scientific basis for a question.
Many review articles contain a meta-analysis. That means that data from several articles have been put together and a new statistical analysis has been done.
Scientific articles are more reliable than many other sources, but you do still need to evaluate and review information taken from them. Perhaps your search has resulted in more articles than you have time to read and in that case, you must do an initial evaluation so you can choose which articles to proceed with.
Here are some aspects to consider when you make your selection. Sometimes you can make an evaluation on the basis of the title or subject heading. In other cases, you will need to go on to the abstract. To be able to evaluate the quality of the study, you must read the article but sometimes you can make an initial evaluation on the basis of the abstract.
- Relevance. Is the article in line with your research question?
- Topicality. Is the information in the article still up to date? Are there more recent articles about this topic which you can choose instead? The matter of topicality can vary in importance depending on the subject area and on how much literature there is on the matter. Two commonly used limits are maximum 5 or 10 years.
- Study population. Is the group that has been studied the same as the group you are interested in so that the results are relevant to your research question? Are the people of the same gender and age and do they have other similar characteristics?
- Type of study. What type of study is it? What method has been used? Different types of studies are suitable for different purposes. Your supervisor or teacher can give you advice about what types of studies you should primarily search for with regard to your research question. In the SBU wordlist you will find explanations for different types of studies and statistical terms. You can read more about study design in literature on research methods.
- Size of study. How large is the study? A large study has more significance than a small one and will produce more reliable results.
- Quality of study. Has the study been conducted well and is it described clearly in the article? To evaluate this fully, you must read the entire article but you can make an initial evaluation on the basis of the article's abstract.
- Key articles. Does the article seem to be of key significance in this subject area? One indication of this could be that it is mentioned as a reference in other articles on the same topic. You can also use the information about citations that some databases provide to help researchers assess how significant a certain article is. A citation means the article is referred to in another article. Remember that completely new articles will not have had time to be cited and that, generally, older articles will have accummulated more citations. Different types of articles are cited to different extents and citation practices also vary among different subject fields. Web of Science, Scopus and Google Scholar are databases that contain citation information.
- Journal. In which journal has the article been published? Is it a well reputed journal in its field? Who publishes the journal? Part of the evaluation could be checking a journal's impact factor. Impact factor is a measurement of how often, on average, articles in a certain journal are cited. The impact factor of a certain journal should always be compared with other journals within the same subject area. The citations in the Web of Science database are used to calculate impact factor. So it is only journals that are included in Web of Science that have an impact factor. It is very possible that a journal does not have an impact factor and yet it is still significant within its field. You can find out the impact factors of journals in the Journal Citation Reports database or, via individual articles, in Web of Science. If you are going to publish your own article, you can read more under Strategic publishing.
The next step is that you must critically examine the articles you read and evaluate their results. Here, you need to look more closely at the design and quality of the study, among other things. There are many different templates for examining scientific articles. For example, SBU has templates for reviewing articles about methods of treatment and diagnosis.
Other ways of publishing science
A scientific article is not the only way of publishing research findings. Conference publications, reports and theses are other examples. In some subject areas, books are also a common way of publishing research.
Papers that are presented at a conference are often published afterwards in a conference publication. These contributions can be in the form of an abstract or complete articles. The results may be more preliminary than in a scientific article and the contributions will not always have been peer reviewed. Often, this is where you can find the very latest research.
Reports or research reports present research findings from e.g. government agencies, organisations, research institutes and companies.
It can be difficult to evaluate this type of published science. In order to evaluate whether a report or conference publication is scientific, you can find out whether the document was reviewed and checked before it was published, if it has a clear structure where the different stages of the research process are described, and if it has references for information that has been taken from other sources.
Scientific theses are written works that have been publicly defended and which result in a licentiate or doctoral degree. Within the field of biomedicine, a compilation thesis is the most common type of thesis. Compilation theses consist of a number of published articles and a summarising chapter (kappa), which is an introductory part that integrates the different articles. In a compilation thesis, the articles have undergone the normal review process for each respective journal before being published. A thesis may also consist of one continuous text.
Questions about scientific sources? Ask us in KIB-labb!