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Biological Sciences Writing: Evaluating


What is the breadth of the article, book, website or other material? Is this a general work that provides an overview of the topic or is it focused on one aspect of your topic. Does the breadth of the work match your own expectations? Does the resource cover the time period that you are interested in?

Who is the intended audience? Is the material too technical or too clinical? Is it too elementary or basic? You are more likely to retrieve articles written for the appropriate audience if you start off in the right index. For instance, to find resources listing the latest statistics on heart disease you may want to avoid the Medline database which will bring up articles designed for practicing clinicians rather than social science researchers.

When was the source published? If it is a website, when was it last updated? Avoid using undated websites. Library catalogs and periodical indexes always indicate the publication date in the bibliographic citation.

Scholarly vs. Popular

A scholarly journal is published by and for experts. In order to be published in a scholarly journal, an article must go through the peer review process in which experts review it for content, scholarly soundness and academic value. In most cases, articles in scholarly journals present new, previously un-published research. Scholarly sources will almost always include a bibliography and footnotes an Author's name and academic credentials

Popular magazines range from publications such as Scientific American to news magazines like Newsweek and US News & World Report. Articles in these publications tend to be written by staff writers or freelance journalists and are geared towards a general audience. Articles in popular magazines are more likely to be shorter than those in academic journals. While most magazines adhere to editorial standards, articles do not go through a peer review process and rarely contain bibliographic citations.

Tip: When searching a journal index such as Academic Search Complete, limit your search to refereed publications. This will retrieve only scholarly journals matching your search terms.

Your searches in Web of Science will retrieve only scholarly articles since only academic journals are indexed in this database.

Who is the author? What are his or her academic credentials? What else has this author written? Sometimes information about the author is listed in the article. Other times, you may need to consult another resource to get background information on the author. Sometimes it helps to search the author's name in a general web search engine like Google.

Other Indicators:

Documentation. A bibliography, along with footnotes, indicate that the author has consulted other sources and serves to authenticate the information that he or she is presenting. In websites, expect links or footnotes documenting sources, and referring to additional resources and other viewpoints.

Objectivity. What point of view does the author represent? Is the article an editorial that is trying to argue a position? Is the website sponsored by a company or organization that advocates a certain philosophy? Is the article published in a magazine that has a particular editorial position? Consult these resources which indicate whether a publication is known to be conservative or progressive, or is affiliated with a particular advocacy group:

Websites. While most of the strategies listed above for evaluating information can be applied to any type of resource (books, articles or websites), the unfiltered, free-form nature of the Web provides unique challenges in determining a website's appropriateness as an information source.
When evaluating a website check:

  • Is there an author listed? Can you determine the producer's credentials? If you cannot determine the author of the site, think twice about using it as a resource.
  • Is the site sponsored by a group or organization? If it is sponsored by a group or company, does the group advocate a certain philosophy? Try to find and read "About Us" or similar information.
  • Is there any bias evident in the site? Is the site trying to sell you a product? Ask why the page was put on the web?
  • Is there a date on the website? Is it sufficiently up-to-date? If there is no date, again, think twice about using it. Undated factual or statistical information should never be used.
  • How credible and authentic are the links to other resources? Are the links evaluated or annotated in any way?

For a more detailed checklist of what to look for in a website and how to do it, see Evaluating Web Pages: How and Why.

Sources for evaluation of articles

A short guide to writing about biology / Jan A. Pechenik. Pearson / Longman, 2007.

1. Skim the article, no notes
2. Re-read carefully, take notes
3. Read the critical sections several times to understand fully
4. Describe the article in your own words, include key points,
5. Write a draft of your summary

The Cochrane Collaboration, Glossary -
This list contains concise definitions of terms used in systematic or literature reviews.

Duke Writing Studio: How to Read and Review a Scientific Journal article: writing summaries and critiques.

Quick Guide

When you encounter any kind of source, consider:

  1. Authority - Who is the author? What is their point of view? 
  2. Purpose - Why was the source created? Who is the intended audience?
  3. Publication & format - Where was it published? In what medium?
  4. Relevance - How is it relevant to your research? What is its scope?
  5. Date of publication - When was it written? Has it been updated?
  6. Documentation - Did they cite their sources? Who did they cite?

Peer Reviewed

Scholarly peer review or refereeing is the process of subjecting an author's scholarly work, research, or ideas to the scrutiny of experts in the same field, before a paper describing this work is published in a journal or as a book.

Peer review helps the publisher (that is, the editor-in-chief or the editorial board) decide whether the work should be accepted, considered acceptable with revisions, or rejected. Peer review requires a community of experts in a given (and often narrowly defined) field, who are qualified and able to perform reasonably impartial review.

Peer review is generally considered necessary for academic quality and is used in most major scientific journals, but does by no means prevent publication of all invalid research.
Traditionally, peer reviewers have been anonymous, but there is currently a significant amount of open peer review, where the comments are visible to readers, generally with the identities of the peer reviewers disclosed as well.

Where to find:

Book reviews
 -- may be found in journals, magazines, newspapers
 -- provide a descriptive, evaluative discussion of a recently published book. Reading how others have evaluated a book may help decide whether to use that book in your research.

Journal Indexes.
Find reviews of books in many journal indexes - search title and/or author of the book. Select a general journal index or an index for the subject area of the book.

Citation indexes.
To see the impact a particular source has had on scholarship, use a citation index for a list of when and where a work has been cited. In other words, you could consult a Citation Index to see all the articles that have cited David Ho's research on HIV.

Use Web of Science: Science Citation Index (1945-present), Social Sciences Citation Index (1970-present), Arts & Humanities Citation Index (1975-present)