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Authority in Scientific Literature



How do I know an article is authoritative and reliable?

judge at his bench This is a tough question. Not all articles are created equal. Just because a journal article has been peer reviewed doesn't mean it's accurate or true. Reviewers don't replicate the work they're reviewing and they don't recheck all the data. Plenty of papers pass peer review in top journals, only to be disproved or even retracted later on, for any number of reasons. And it's well documented that the scientific literature is filled with, well, junk.

Ultimately it's up to the reader - that's you - to separate the good research from the bad. Experienced scientists use their accumulated judgment and knowledge, as well as an outlook of informed skepticism, to decide quickly if a particular paper is worthwhile or not. But what are students to do? Here are some questions you can ask yourself.

What journal was it published in?
Like articles, not all journals are created equal. Major journals in every field are recognized for their overall quality and authority (even though bad articles can appear in them too). In analytical chemistry, you're on safer ground with papers from journals such as Analytical Chemistry; Spectrochimica Acta; Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry; Journal of Chromatography; The Analyst; Analytical & Bioanalytical Chemistry; Journal of Molecular Spectroscopy; Talanta; Analytica Chimica Acta; Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry; Journal of AOAC International; etc. They come from reputable publishers such as the American Chemical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley, AOAC, and the like. Obscure journals from obscure publishers are less likely to contain articles that pass muster with your instructors.

Who are the authors?
Be careful with this one. When you get experience, you'll recognize major names in your field of study, and those can usually be trusted. But more likely an article will have a bunch of authors you've never heard of. Where do they work? There's a strong bias towards researchers working in major research universities and government institutes in North America and Western Europe, but this can be unfair to excellent researchers working in other parts of the world.

Has anyone else cited this article?
You can easily determine this by looking up the article in Web of Science or Google Scholar. Articles with lots of citations from later works are probably more reliable than those with few citations. But brand new papers may not have accumulated many citations yet, and sometimes citations are negative - a controversial or disproved paper might have many citations that refute its claims.

Is the article well written?
Poor grammar and language usage is often a giveaway to a paper that hasn't been properly vetted or edited. Really poor language is a clue that translation software might have been used, which should disqualify it altogether.

Does it make sense?
Ultimately this is the acid test. If the paper's conclusions don't make sense based on the data presented, it's a good idea to move on to another one.

What kinds of articles should I avoid?

There are no hard and fast rules, but in general, these types of content aren't appropriate for scholarly use:

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