Section 2.1: The Scientific Literature

Decorative Page Banner stating the title of this text: Fundamentals of Social Research by Adam J. McKee

In scholarly journals, there’s a vast range of article types that cater to different research needs and purposes. While empirical studies predominantly populate the realms of social sciences, they are just one piece of the larger academic puzzle. Articles like literature review pieces critically dissect already published material, paving the way for understanding the evolution and current state of knowledge in a field.

Then, theoretical articles draw from this vast literature pool to propose new or refined theories. Alongside, methodological articles focus on innovative approaches to research methods. However, amidst this sea of information, it’s crucial to evaluate the authenticity and quality of sources based on factors like author credentials, publisher reputation, and the peer review process. Dive in to understand the nuanced characteristics of these article types and how to discern the most valuable ones for your research.

Types of Articles

Empirical Research Reports

Empirical studies, often referred to as empirical research reports, represent a specific kind of article that can be located within scholarly journals. These studies are grounded in direct observation or experience rather than purely theoretical or subjective considerations. They provide firsthand accounts of research experiments, detailing methodologies, sample sizes, procedures, results, and conclusions.

For students crafting literature reviews, empirical studies serve as a critical foundation. They offer a rich source of primary data, allowing students to understand the current landscape of research on a particular topic. Furthermore, by analyzing various empirical studies, students can identify patterns, contradictions, and gaps in the existing research. This aids them in constructing a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge in the field. Additionally, empirical research reports provide a valuable benchmark for determining the validity and reliability of findings.

When students reference empirical studies in their literature reviews, they not only enhance the credibility of their work but also position their own findings and interpretations within a broader context of established research. In essence, empirical studies play an indispensable role in strengthening and substantiating the claims made in literature reviews.  While these are by far the most abundant in the social sciences, others are important.

Literature Review Articles

Literature review articles delve deeply into previously published materials, offering a critical assessment and synthesis of existing knowledge. When you pen such an article, you’re not merely reiterating what others have written; instead, you’re providing a unique evaluation that assists readers in comprehending the current state of understanding in the specified domain. These articles are meticulously crafted to categorize, assimilate, and critically appraise the findings of earlier research studies. Citing guidelines from the APA (2001, p. 7), the primary objectives when drafting a literature review include:

  1. Precisely defining and elucidating the central problem or issue.
  2. Providing a consolidated summary of past research endeavors, enlightening the reader about the contemporary research landscape.
  3. Drawing attention to observed patterns, discrepancies, and uncharted territories within the extant literature.
  4. Proposing potential directions for future research endeavors to address unresolved questions or challenges.

Distinct from empirical studies, which are typically structured chronologically, literature reviews adopt a more thematic approach. Their layout is dictated by the inherent connections and logic of the topic, rather than a strict progression of time or events. For students who find themselves tasked with drafting “term papers” that essentially serve as literature reviews, this thematic organization is paramount. Instead of adhering to the traditional format of introduction, methods, results, and discussion, a literature review mandates a structurally fluid approach, wherein various segments are woven together in a manner that cohesively and logically elucidates the topic at hand.

Writing a Literature Review?

The PDF file provides a sample of a literature review as assigned in my undergraduate research methods course. It is not perfect, but it is an example of a lit review that I would score as “A” work.

Theoretical Articles

Theoretical articles stand as foundational pillars within the scholarly realm. In these compositions, authors meticulously sift through established research literature to either introduce an innovative theory or refine an existing one. Given that the backbone of these articles is the existing literature, their architecture often mirrors that of review articles. This inherent connection between theory and literature is pivotal for several reasons.

For students undertaking the task of crafting a literature review, understanding and integrating relevant theoretical frameworks is paramount. Theories provide an overarching lens through which specific research findings can be interpreted, contextualized, and connected. When you, as a student, ground your literature review in pertinent theories, you’re not just recounting what various studies have found. Instead, you’re positioning those findings within a broader conceptual framework, thereby offering deeper insights and a more comprehensive understanding of the topic at hand.

Furthermore, recognizing and incorporating the significant theories relevant to your topic can streamline the literature review process. By doing so, you can discern patterns, anticipate potential challenges, and predict future research trajectories. A strong theoretical foundation not only enriches your review but also helps in identifying gaps in the literature, thus guiding future research inquiries. In essence, a keen awareness of theoretical underpinnings is instrumental for students desiring to elevate their literature reviews from mere summaries to insightful, analytical critiques.

Methodological Articles

Methodological articles are specialized types of academic papers that play a crucial role in the scientific and research community. At their core, these articles are dedicated to introducing new ways of conducting research, making tweaks to already-existing methods, or providing a clearer understanding of methods that are currently in use. In other words, rather than focusing on the results of an experiment or a study, these articles put the spotlight on the processes and procedures researchers use to obtain those results.

A distinguishing feature of methodological articles is their focus on a specific technique of data analysis. Instead of presenting data to argue a point or support a hypothesis, the data in these articles is used as an example or a case study to show how a particular analytical technique can be applied in real-world research. This approach helps researchers understand the practical implications and possible advantages of the technique being discussed. It provides clarity on when and how to use the method, ensuring that other researchers can replicate the process in their own studies, thereby upholding the principles of accuracy and consistency in scientific investigations.

Evaluating Sources

When conducting research, it’s essential to remember that not all sources offer equal value or reliability. To discern which materials best support your work, you need to critically evaluate each source. The quality, authenticity, and relevance of the information you gather significantly depend on your selection. Here are a few guidelines to ensure you’re making informed decisions when choosing sources:

Author’s Credentials

A fundamental step in evaluating sources is examining the qualifications of the author. You should look into the author’s academic background, relevant training, affiliations with institutions, and other publications to assess their credibility in a particular field. However, be cautious about relying solely on titles. Just because someone has a “Dr.” prefix doesn’t mean they’re an expert in every subject they discuss. For instance, while Albert Einstein was a renowned physicist, his opinions on political matters don’t carry the weight of a seasoned political scientist.

Reputation of Publisher

The reputation of the publisher can often give insights into the quality and reliability of a source. Academic presses associated with universities, respected trade publications, and government documents are typically reliable sources of information. However, be wary of materials that are self-published by the author or come from organizations with clear biases. For example, an impartial overview of marijuana is unlikely to be found in a magazine like High Times, which focuses on cannabis culture. Given the ease of online publishing, websites can be particularly tricky. Trustworthy sites usually belong to recognized institutions like governments or universities.

Publication Date

The date a source was published can significantly impact its relevance, especially in rapidly evolving fields. As a general rule of thumb, older publications are better suited for providing historical context rather than current information or modern perspectives. For instance, a book on technology from the 1970s might not accurately represent today’s technological landscape, though it can be valuable for understanding historical developments.

Peer Review

The peer-review process is an essential benchmark of academic quality. When articles are peer-reviewed, they undergo rigorous examination by experts in the relevant field. This ensures the content’s accuracy, relevance, and quality. As such, peer-reviewed materials are typically held in higher regard than those only reviewed by an editor or not reviewed at all.

Sufficient Coverage

Depth and breadth of coverage are crucial when assessing the value of a source. Some sources, especially certain web pages, may offer only surface-level insights, lacking the depth needed for comprehensive understanding. Instead of relying on numerous sources that only skim a topic, it’s often more beneficial to lean on fewer, high-quality materials that delve deeply into the subject matter. This ensures a more thorough and nuanced grasp of the topic you’re researching.

Evaluating Sources in Historical Research

Historical research presents unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to evaluating sources. Unlike disciplines that rely heavily on current data or peer-reviewed studies, historical inquiry often involves delving into archives, manuscripts, and primary sources that have been preserved over time. Below are specific considerations to keep in mind when evaluating sources for historical research.

Types of Sources in Historical Research

Primary Sources

  • Definition and Importance: Primary sources are original documents or artifacts that provide direct evidence or first-hand accounts of events, people, or works of art.
  • Examples: These could include diaries, letters, photographs, or even clothing and tools from a specific period.
  • Evaluation: Their authenticity should be verified, and it’s essential to understand the context in which these documents were produced.

Secondary Sources

  • Definition and Importance: Secondary sources interpret, analyze, or summarize information from primary sources.
  • Examples: Examples of secondary sources in historical research could include scholarly articles that analyze primary sources, biographies, or documentaries.
  • Evaluation: Always check the author’s credentials and the source’s reputation. Peer-reviewed articles and books published by academic presses are generally reliable.

Evaluating the Credibility of Historical Sources

Authorship and Perspective

  • Bias and Intent: Every historical document was written with a specific perspective and intent. Understanding the author’s perspective can help in assessing the source’s reliability.
  • Context: Knowing the historical and cultural context in which the source was produced can help in its evaluation.

Age and Preservation of Source

  • Historical Significance: In historical research, older sources are not necessarily outdated; they can be crucial for understanding the past.
  • State of Preservation: A well-preserved document is usually more reliable than one that has deteriorated over time.

Using Digital Archives and Online Resources

Authenticity and Digitization

  • Digitized vs. Original: Many historical documents are digitized for easy access. However, be cautious about the authenticity and ensure you’re using a reputable digital archive.
  • Citations: Always note the provenance of digital resources and consider their traceability back to the original document.

Cross-Referencing Sources

  • Multiple Accounts: It’s advisable to cross-reference multiple accounts or interpretations of an event to get a balanced view.
  • Corroboration: Cross-referencing also allows for the corroboration of facts across different sources, adding credibility to your research.

Ethical Considerations in Historical Research

Ownership and Access

  • Rights and Permissions: Be aware of the legal constraints on accessing or reproducing certain documents. Some may have copyright limitations or restricted access due to their sensitive nature.
  • Cultural Sensitivity: Always handle historical documents, especially those pertaining to marginalized communities, with the utmost care and respect, acknowledging their cultural and historical significance.

By taking these considerations into account, researchers can navigate the rich, complex terrain of historical sources with greater confidence and ethical awareness. Evaluating sources in historical research is not just about verifying facts, but about understanding the layered contexts within which these facts were produced.


Scholarly journals contain different types of articles, each catering to distinct research needs. Empirical Studies are based on direct experiments or observations. Imagine someone conducting a science experiment and then writing about the process and the results they observed. By referring to these studies in a report, your arguments become stronger and more credible because they show real-world evidence.

Literature Reviews are a bit like summaries. They look at what’s already been written on a topic and give a condensed version of the main points. These reviews help people get a sense of what’s known about a subject and where there might still be mysteries to uncover.

On the other hand, Theoretical Articles dive into new ideas or concepts. Think of these as building upon existing knowledge, like adding new blocks to a LEGO tower to make it taller and more intricate.

Then there are Methodological Articles. These are like instruction manuals for research. Instead of showcasing the results of a study, they guide readers on new ways to set up experiments or gather data.

Lastly, and crucially, it’s vital to ensure the information you’re using is trustworthy. Always look at the background of who wrote an article, which organization published it, when it was written, and whether other experts in the field have reviewed it. This process is similar to verifying a rumor by checking with different sources. Doing this diligence ensures you’re using the most accurate and reliable information for your research and assignments.

Modification History

File Created:  07/24/2018

Last Modified:  08/17/2023

[ Back | Content | Next]

Print for Personal Use

You are welcome to print a copy of pages from this Open Educational Resource (OER) book for your personal use. Please note that mass distribution, commercial use, or the creation of altered versions of the content for distribution are strictly prohibited. This permission is intended to support your individual learning needs while maintaining the integrity of the material.

Print This Text Section Print This Text Section

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.