Scholarly journals are where academics present their research and where debate on discipline-specific issues occurs. As a student, you are now a member of the academic community and expected to engage with this literature.
Remember journal articles are extremely specific. If you don't know much about a subject area it might be best to start with your course textbook and other books. These will give you a broad overview of your topic and help you come up with keywords and ideas to more quickly find useful articles.
As well, if you're studying an extremely recent event, you may not be able to find anything directly related in the scholarly literature because it takes some time for scholars to write about it. In this case, try researching related ideas instead.
When scientists have information or an experiment to add to the body of knowledge in their field of study, they usually write up their findings for inclusion in a scientific journal. Before it is published, these articles go through a process of peer review.
Because articles in scientific journals are specific, meticulously cited and peer-reviewed, journal databases are the best place to look for information on previous research on your species. Without a background in the field, journal articles may be hard to understand - however, you do not need to understand an entire article to be able to get valuable information from it.
Search tip: Reading a journal article may lead you to a number of other journal articles on closely related topics. When reading a journal article, mark the citations that you are interested in. Later, you can find those articles to continue your search.
The most common type of journal article you will find in the sciences deals with primary research. These articles describe an original experiment or analysis that adds to current knowledge a particular topic. These articles will include background information, the methods the scientist used, a description of the results, and an analysis of what the results mean in the context of current knowledge.
Review articles synthesize current research on a specific topic. Often an article will summarize past research, identify important people in the field, outline recent advances, and point out gaps in a body of knowledge - they do not report original research.
Review articles are a great resource if you're looking for an overview of a small topic, with complete and current information. Review articles are well-cited, so they can provide a starting point for more extensive research.
Typically, Primary journal articles will have a common structure that includes:
Secondary/Review articles frequently contain many of the same sections but frequently will not have a Methods or Methods & Materials section. If they do, they will discuss how the articles to be reviewed were found and selected.
Look for a Methods or Methods and Materials Section as a quick check to see if an article may be primary. Read this section to see if the researchers are talking about their new research.
Most scientific journals format their articles in a standard way; breaking them into clearly defined and labelled sub-sections.
If you are looking for a specific kind of information - think about which section might have the information that you need, and skip to that section. The Introduction and Discussion sections are good places to look for general information and an overview of the important issues.
The short videos on this page will help provide some additional tips to consider when reading articles.
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