Finding and Identifying Original Research Articles in the Sciences
Scientific research that is published in academic journals undergoes a process called "peer review."
The peer review process goes like this:
- A researcher writes a paper and sends it in to an academic journal, where it is read by an editor.
- The editor then sends the article to other scientists who study similar topics, who can best evaluate the article
- These other scientists then make suggestions or comments
- The original author is then given these suggestions and comments, and makes changes as needed
- This process repeats until everyone is satisfied and the article can be published within the academic journal
This journal article is an example. It was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science in 2015. Clicking on the button that says "Review History" will show the comments by the editors, reviewers and the author as it went through the peer review process. The "About Us" menu provides details about this journal; "About the journal" under that tab includes the statement that the journal is peer reviewed.
What is an original research article?
An original research article (also called primary scientific literature) will follow the scientific format, undergo peer review and be published in academic journals. However, not everything that meets those criteria is an original research article. If you aren't sure if something is an original research article, consider its purpose, author and audience.
Characteristics of original research articles in the sciences
An "original research article" is an article that is reporting original research about new data or theories that have not been previously published. That might be the results of new experiments, or newly derived models or simulations. The article will include a detailed description of the methods used to produce them, so that other researchers can verify them. This description is often found in a section called "methods" or "materials and methods" or similar. Similarly, the results will generally be described in great detail, often in a section called "results."
Since the original research article is reporting the results of new research, the authors should be the scientists who conducted that research. They will have expertise in the field, and will usually be employed by a university or research lab.
In comparison, a newspaper or magazine article (such as in The New York Times or National Geographic) will usually be written by a journalist reporting on the actions of someone else.
An original research article will be written by and for scientists who study related topics. As such, the article should use precise, technical language to ensure that other researchers have an exact understanding of what was done, how to do it, and why it matters. There will be plentiful citations to previous work, helping place the research article in a broader context. The article will be published in an academic journal, follow a scientific format, and undergo peer-review.
What isn't an original research article?
These articles can sometimes be mistaken for an original research article, but have different purposes.
They follow a scientific format, undergo peer review, and are aimed at scientists, but are not reporting new data or theories. Instead, they review the current state of knowledge on a topic. Since they are not reporting new data, the authors will usually not include a "methods" or "results" section. These articles play an important role, but that role is very different from that played by original research articles.
Press releases, newspaper or magazine articles
These won't be in a formal scientific format or be peer reviewed. The author will usually be a journalist, and the audience will be the general public. Since most readers are not interested in the precise details of the research, the language will usually be nontechnical and broad. Citations will be rare or nonexistent.
Tips for finding the source of a news report about science
If you've seen or heard a report about a new scientific finding or claim, these tips can help you find the original source:
- Often, the report will mention where the original research was published; look for sentences like "In an article published yesterday in the journal Nature..." You can use this to find the issue of the journal where the research was published, and look at the table of contents to find the original article.
- The report will often name the researchers involved. You can search relevant databases for their name and the topic of the report to find the original research that way.
- Sometimes you may have to go through multiple articles to find the original source. For example, a video or blog post may be based on a newspaper article, which in turn is reporting on a scientific discovery published in another journal; be sure to find the original research article.
- Don't be afraid to ask a librarian for help!