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Biology Information Literacy Part I: Resources & the Library: How to Read a Scientific Paper

How to Read a Scientific Paper

The following guides give pointers on how to read a scientific paper:

Video: Introduction to Scientific Journal Literature


Introduction to Scientific Journal Literature
created by Dalhousie University, Canada (4:02 minutes)

Evaluating Websites

How do I determine if a website is credible or not?

Anyone with Internet access can publish a website and disseminate information online.  When you are determining how or if you should use a specific website in your work, you should evaluate the website using the following criteria:

Currency

  • How recent is the information?
  • How recently has the website been updated?
  • Is the information current enough for your topic?

Accuracy

  • Can the data be verified by other sources?
  • Does the author have an obvious bias?

Authorship

  • Is the author identified?
  • What are the author’s credentials?

Audience

  • Who is the site intended for?  Scholars?  Professionals?  Students? 

Coverage

  • Does the site state its intended scope? 
  • Is it designed to cover an entire subject or to give detailed information on one aspect of the subject?

Relative Value

  • How does it compare to other sources of similar information? 
  • Are there other more accurate or complete sources?

Primary Resources

What is a primary source?

Primary sources are original materials. These sources are from the time period involved and have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation.  They are materials on which other research is based.  Primary sources represent original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information.  Some types of primary sources in the sciences include:

  • Original research studies/journal articles that contain methods, materials, and results sections describing an experiment or observation performed by the authors.
  • Patents
  • Proceedings of Meetings/Conferences
  • Records of Organizations/Government Agencies (Annual reports, treaties, Environmental Impact Statements, etc.)
  • Newspaper articles written at the time.

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources.  These sources are usually one or more steps removed from the event.  Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.  Some types of secondary sources include:

  • PUBLICATIONS: Textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias, reviews.

For more information on primary and secondary sources, the University of Maryland library provides a helpful and concise overview on the types of sources you will encounter while doing your research. 

Scholarly vs. Popular Resources

In academic research, it is important to distinguish between scholarly and popular (non-scholarly) sources.  While one can argue the value of both, the scholarly sources are the ones that are usually preferred when doing academic research.

The following is a table comparing the general features of these two types of sources:

 

Scholarly Sources

Popular Sources

Contents

• In-Depth, Original Research

• Usually undergoes peer-review process (see Peer Review for more)

• Current Events, Popular Topics, Interviews

Authors

• Experts in the Field (e.g., professors, researchers, etc.)

• Experts in the subject they are writing about.

• Journalists or Freelance Writers

• May or may not be subject experts in what they are writing about.

Writing Level

• Technical language that assumes some level of college education.

• Simple language

Works Cited

• Almost always has some kind of Works Cited or Reference list to back up what they are writing.

• Rarely documents sources used.

Examples

Journal of the American Medical Association

Pacific Science

New Scientist

Honolulu Star-Advertiser


What's a Journal? Journals vs. Magazines
by Kapi'olani Community College Library