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Reading Scholarly Articles

Scholarly articles may seem daunting when researching. They often are long and filled with jargon. However, reading them efficiently comes down to having the right approach.

"Scholarly" / "Academic" / "Peer-Reviewed" / "Refereed" Articles?

All of these terms refer to an article written by a professional researcher or academic scholar who is considered an expert in their field and is published in an academic journal.  Academic journals are a periodical publication that publish scholarship typically related to a specific academic field/discipline, such as history or biology. Academic journals grew out of the communications between scholars and 17th century scholar societies. For more information on this history see this Scientific American blog post

Academic journals typically are peer-reviewed, also known as refereed, which means it has been evaluated for accuracy before publishing by a group of experts in the field. (Look at the peer-review tab for a more in-depth discussion of this process) 

Not all "scholarly" articles need to be peer reviewed in order to be considered reliable, academic articles. Many journal publications have an editorial board that reviews articles for accuracy and authority before publishing. While scholarly journals may typically use the peer review process, a journal does not need to use peer review in order to be considered scholarly.

Types of Sources

Sources for research generally fall in to three broad categories:

  • Primary Sources: An original creative work, historical record about events, survey data, or publication of original, empirical research.

  • Secondary Sources: Works that are written using information from primary sources. They provide additional commentary, interpretations, or analyses about work that has been published, contributing to conversations that are taking place within a discipline.

  • Tertiary Sources: Works that summarize and synthesize information in primary in secondary sources in order to provide background information about a topic, idea, or event.

Academic writing can can fall into any of these categories. When doing research think about what information you need and if the source type is meeting that need. 


Types of Articles

There are several types of articles that you will encounter in your research. Sometimes your professor may even ask you to find a certain type of article for a project. Knowing what kind of article you are looking at can help you determine if the article will be helpful for your research and what kinds of information it will provide.  Some of the most common article types:

  1. Empirical Study: An empirical study is one that aims to gain new knowledge on a topic through direct or indirect observation and research. This includes quantitative or qualitative data and analysis, and are considered primary sources. These articles report the results of one or more studies or experiments, written by the person(s) who conducted the research. An empirical article will often include the following sections: Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion. Look in the title or abstract for words like study, research, measure, subjects, data, effects, survey, or statistical, which might indicate empirical research.
  2. Literature Review: These articles are a synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. These are useful when you want to get an overview of a body of research that you are not yet familiar with. Literature reviews summarize the findings of others' studies or experiments, attempt to identify trends, or draw broader conclusions. Literature reviews are scholarly in nature and are considered secondary sources, however, their references to other articles will include primary sources or research articles. It differs from a systematic review in that it does not aim to capture ALL of the research on a particular topic.
  3. Meta-Analysis: This is a type of research study that combines or contrasts data from different independent studies in a new analysis in order to strengthen the understanding of a particular topic. There are many methods applied to performing this type of analysis. Often, this includes a mathematical synthesis of the results of two or more primary studies that addressed the same hypothesis in the same way. Sometimes you may also see several sets of data from multiple sources run through a new analysis or statistical method.
  4. Case Study: A description of a single case or situation with unique features. A case study is a record of research in which detailed consideration is given to a development of a particular person, group, or situation over a period of time. Many case studies will be used or analyzed in order to illustrate a thesis or principle.
  5. Systematic Review: This is a methodical and thorough literature review focused on a particular research question. Its aim is to identify and synthesize all of the scholarly research on a particular topic in an unbiased, reproducible way, often to provide evidence for practice and policy-making. It may involve a meta-analysis.
  6. Literary Analysis: Analysis is the practice of looking closely at small parts to see how they affect the whole. Literary analysis focuses on how plot/structure, character, setting, and many other techniques are used by authors of literature.

Other Types of Academic Writing

Here are several other types of academic publications that can be used in academic research. These types of writing have varying lengths, level of details, and time frames for publication. 

  1. Workshop papers: Workshops usually occur in parallel (or right before) the main program of the major conferences. They are often aimed at building networks around or discussing emerging topics, which are not yet mature to be presented at the main conference. They can also be used to discuss specific, niche topics. As such, Workshop papers are often one of the initial publications of graduate students. They allow students to present their initial progress towards their research and obtain feedback from the research community, while networking with other researchers working on similar topics. Workshop papers are usually a bit shorter than full conference papers, and often go through a more relaxed peer-review process than conferences.

  2. Conference extended abstracts and posters (also called works-in-progress, late-breaking work, or similar): Work that is in its initial stages can usually be presented in conferences as an extended abstract or poster. The exact format varies between conferences. For example, some conferences let authors publish an extended abstract (a short description of their work and results), which is presented during the conference only as a poster. Similar to Workshop papers, extended abstracts and poster sessions are good opportunities to present initial ideas and results and receive feedback from the community.

  3. Short conference papers: Some conferences allow researchers to submit short papers, which usually have a limited length between four and six pages. Short papers are intended for not for publication of mature and finished results, but for small studies or any other form of contribution which can be explained within the page limit. Short papers usually go through a rigorous peer-review process and are presented as a talk within the main conference program, although usually with a bit less allocated time than full papers.

  4. Full conference papers: Full papers represent the main type of contribution for academic conferences. These must present a mature and finished contribution to the field. Full papers also go through a rigorous peer-review process and are presented as a talk within the main conference program. They also help to considerably increase the visibility of one’s research, due to the presentation during the conference and the posterior availability of the paper as part of a digital library or other form of proceedings. 

  5. Preprints:  A preliminary version of an article before it has undergone peer-review/editing and been published in an academic journal. Preprints are typically put into open-access servers known as preprint servers. These are most common in scientific communities, especially fields like mathematics and physics. 

  6. Books or book chapters: Academic books come in a wide variety and can provide in-depth information on a topic. As books can take years to publish they may not have the most up to date research.  Books go through an editorial process to help ensure accuracy. 
  7. Dissertations and Thesis: Written works by students, typically masters or doctoral students, but there are a growing number of undergraduate thesis available. They are new or expanded research on a topic and serve as the culminating project for academic degrees. These documents can be great starting place for your research as they typically include in-depth literature reviews on their topics.   

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