Section 2.1: The Scientific Literature | Research


Fundamentals of Social Research

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.


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Empirical studies are only one type of article found in scholarly journals.  While these are by far the most abundant in the social sciences, others are important.

Review articles are critical evaluations of material that has already been published.  That is, your contribution to the literature when writing such an article is your evaluation—helping others understand the state of knowledge in your field.  This type of article seeks to organize, integrate, and evaluate previously published research findings. According to the APA (2001, p. 7), some of your objectives when writing such an article are as follows:

  • Define and clarify the problem
  • Summarize previous investigations in order to inform the reader of the state of current research
  • Identify relationships, contradictions, and gaps in the literature
  • Suggest the next steps in solving the research problem

The components of a review article are generally arranged by logical relationships, not chronology as with empirical studies.  As a student writing “term papers” that are essentially literature reviews, this is how you will organize your work.  You generally will not use the introduction-method-results-discussion style of organization. Rather, you will create a sequence of sections that logically present your topic.

Theoretical articles are papers in which the author draws on existing research literature to advance a new theory or a revision of an old theory.  Because the existing literature is offered to support the developing theory, the structure is very similar to a review article.

The task of writing a literature review will be made much easier if you identify the major theories that apply to your topic of interest.

Methodological articles are papers that describe new methodological approaches, modify existing methods, or explain the use of existing methods.  These articles will usually focus on a technique of data analysis and will present data only to demonstrate the use of that technique.

Evaluating Sources

All sources are not equally useful.  You should analyze your sources to determine the best ones.  Here are some things that can help you in this determination:

Author’s credentials.  Determine whether an author’s academic degrees, training, affiliations, or other published works establish authority.  Be careful of “Dr.” – you cannot take a Ph.D. as expertise. Einstein, for example, commented frequently on political issues, but he was no political scientist.

Reputation of Publisher.  University, academic, or trade presses usually print quality resources.  Government documents are usually a good source. Watch out for materials published by the author and biased organizations.  The unbiased facts about marijuana use are not likely to be found in the latest edition of High Times.  Because of the ease of web publishing, websites are always suspect.  If a website is an official publication of a government agency or a university, then the material is likely to be of good quality.

Publication Date.  As a general rule, only use old resources to provide historical context.  A book published in the 1970s is not likely to reflect the current state of a field.

Peer Review.  Peer-reviewed articles are always considered to be superior to articles that were merely reviewed by an editor.

Sufficient Coverage.  Many sources, especially web pages, will not provide enough detail to be useful.  Many sources that cover only a handful of basic facts are not nearly as good a few high-quality sources that treat your topic in depth.

Modification History

File Created:  07/24/2018

Last Modified:  07/24/2018

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