Fundamentals of Social Research
Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
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Recall that a hypothesis should be based on an educated prediction of outcomes. In this context, the term educated means that the researcher has reviewed the literature of the field in regards to the issue being researched. When social scientists refer to the literature, they are referring to the scholarly publications that deal with a particular topic. Note the use of the term scholarly publications. Most researchers (and professors that will be grading your student papers) will only consider a source to be scholarly if it undergoes the peer review process. Others may extend this definition to include treatises (books and monographs) by scholars in the field, government documents, and sources of data. In conducting legal research, many materials that have not been peer-reviewed will nevertheless be considered scholarly.
In the information age, information is at our fingertips. It often seems that life’s mysteries can all be solved if we simply “Google it.” The problem with all of this information is that much of it is biased, or simply incorrect. Misinformation abounds. In research circles where the truth is taken very seriously, people expend a great deal of effort in identifying and ensuring high-quality information. The primary insurance that scientific information is of high quality is the longstanding process of peer review. The peer review process is critically important to researchers because it determines what research is published, and what research is not.
When experts in an area of research conduct studies and write articles based on the findings of their research, those articles are submitted to professional journals for publication. This is how scientists communicate their research findings to the broader scientific community. The editors of these journals do not make the decision of what to publish alone. The usual process is to send the article out to several of the researcher’s peers and have them review the document, and make comments about whether to publish it as is, publish it after improvements are made, or not to publish it at all. These peers are experts in the subject area that the article deals with.
Peer reviewers are generally asked by the editors to consider the following issues:
- Validity. Are the results credible? Were appropriate methods used to answer the research question?
- Significance. Does this research add anything to the field? Does it generate new knowledge and improve our understanding?
- Originality. Does this research add anything new to the field, or does it just rehash what is already known?
- Overall Recommendation. Should the paper be published, improved, or rejected for publication?
It is worthy of note that the peer review process is not perfect, and at times very poorly designed research makes its way into the literature. In rare instances, unscrupulous “researchers” have fabricated research findings in order to get published. This is one of the reasons that social scientists are reluctant to consider a single study as “proof” of a hypothesis. Actually, most social scientists never consider anything proven, ever. There is only evidence that points a certain way, and that direction is subject to change at any time if more compelling evidence is generated elsewhere.
Finding Peer-Reviewed Publications
Determining if a particular paper is peer reviewed can be problematic. There was a time when the number of professional journals in a field was quite small, and researchers were familiar with the standards of the journals in their field. In the information age, there are many, many publications that have “journal” in their name, and many exist only online. The determination of the legitimacy of a journal you are not familiar with requires a bit of detective work.
One method is to use a search engine to locate the webpage for the journal and read up on the editorial policy. Most journals make it plain if they are peer-reviewed because the editors know that being peer reviewed is a clear indicator of legitimacy. If you are using an academic database to conduct your search, most will have the option to only search for peer-reviewed articles. This is the recommended procedure. Still, be careful. Research databases are immense, and sometimes a particular article or journal can be misclassified as peer reviewed when it, in fact, is not.
The terminology will vary between databases; not all will use the term peer reviewed (but some will). Look for search limiters such as scholarly and academic. If you have trouble doing this, ask a reference librarian for assistance. Note that some articles may be considered academic, even if they are not peer-reviewed. Different sources will use the term differently. Ask your professor for clarification if you are unsure about the quality of a particular paper.
The Hierarchy of Publication Types
While substantial differences exist between publications of the same type, some generalizations about different article types can be made. As you move down the following list, the articles in the category become less and less appropriate for sources for a scholarly paper.
The purpose of scholarly articles is to increase the knowledge base in a particular scientific discipline and disseminate research findings to the community of scholars. These types of articles will usually have a substantial number of references. These references may be cited as footnotes, but will most commonly appear on a “Reference” page near the end of the article. The authors will be scholars and researchers in the field. If your professor says that you must cite “peer-reviewed journal articles,” this is the type of article that she is talking about.
The tone of these articles will be formal, and the rules of a particular system of citation will be followed. Technical jargon will be ample and specific to the field. (This jargon is a major reason that students are required to take a research methods class—so they can be intelligent consumers of research). These articles will appear very drab by popular press standards, and will usually contain little to no advertising. These are the types of articles that you should cite in your papers.
These types of articles are specific to a particular field of endeavor, and will usually be aimed at a readership of professionals working in the field. The basic purpose of these articles is to provide news, updates, and information to people working in a particular field. Very few (if any) sources will be cited in these kinds of articles. The authors will usually be practitioners or educations in the discipline that the article covers.
The reader will be assumed to understand the jargon of the field. These types of articles will usually be laid out in a magazine format, with ample photographs and graphics. Advertising is common, and this is targeted to professionals in the field. These types of articles are of limited use as scholarly sources. Consider citing them when they deal with practice developments, but not when discussing research results or theoretical perspectives.
News or Opinion
These are the higher end periodicals target to an intelligent lay audience. Occasional bibliographies may be included, but this is rare. The authors are usually magazine staff writers or freelance writers. That is, there articles are written by journalists, not scholars. These articles may assume a level of education, but will avoid the jargon and specialized knowledge of a particular field. These articles can often be identified by advertising geared toward the lay public. These articles should rarely be cited in a scholarly paper. Exceptions are articles that relate certain facts that are salient to the justification of a research project. They can also be used to illustrate practice examples.
These are the magazines that you see lying around barber and dentists’ offices. They are designed primarily for entertainment. They will rarely include any bibliographic information. The authors are usually freelance writers or magazine staff writers. Photographs and graphics are geared toward garnering reader interest. The layout of these articles will be attractive and well designed, and advertising will be geared toward a very general audience. These articles will almost never be appropriate as a source for a scholarly paper. Most college faculty prohibit the use of these types of articles; if you think you can justify including one of these, be sure to check with your professor.
Sources to Avoid
Rule: If anyone can edit it, then you should never cite it.
Wiki technology can be extremely useful and informative, but it should never be used as a source in academic writing. There is just too large a probability that the information is biased or just plain wrong.
Avoid general references that are not specific to your discipline. Many dictionaries and encyclopedias are now in the public domain, but these are not field specific and tend to be dated. Do not cite Webster’s Dictionary, for example. Field-specific encyclopedias, published by reputable publishing firms, may be allowable. (Even if your professor will not allow them as a cited source, they are a great way to learn the jargon of a particular area of study). Note that these may be considered scholarly, but they are not peer-reviewed.
Avoid internet-only sources of information that lack authors and dates. These may contain valuable information, but they are just as likely to contain useless garbage. Exceptions are what the APA calls corporate authors. If you want to talk about the mission statement of the FBI, for example, then you can find it on the FBI’s website. Be especially leery of blogs, chat room dialog, bulletin board posts, and other types of media that can be published on a whim with little or no consideration. These are certainly not scholarly sources.
Modification History File Created: 07/24/2018 Last Modified: 07/24/2018
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