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Bi 1: Principles of Biology: Evaluating Sources

Library resources for students taking Bi 1 at Caltech in Spring 2021

Types of Articles

Literature databases usually index several kinds of scholarly writing. It's important to be familiar with them so that you choose the correct type of article for your assignments. Different databases may call them different things; more about that elsewhere in this guide.

  • Original Research Article
    This is the standard peer-reviewed "journal article" that reports on an actual experiment performed, and presents the results of those experiments. These articles generally contain the following clearly-defined sections: Background/Introduction, Experimental/Methods, Results/Discussion, Conclusion. If what you are reading doesn't contain all of those sections, it probably isn't an Original Research Article.

  • Review Article
    Reviews present summaries and critiques of OTHER work that has been done on a topic, but it does NOT present original experimental results. It does not follow the format of an Original Research Article, and may or may not be peer-reviewed.

  • News/Opinion/Editorial Article
    These are popular in trade publications, such as Chemical & Engineering News, and also in scholarly journals such as Science and Nature. They are usually good as overviews of a particular research experiment, but don't give the full scope of the work, and are NOT peer-reviewed. Usually, the Original Research Article is referenced somewhere in the text.

  • Book or Book Chapter
    After ideas and experiments have been established in the open literature for a while, work may be collected and published in a book. Edited books usually contain several chapters dealing with different aspects of a topic. The editor of the book is usually a prominent researcher in the field, and invites other researchers to contribute chapters. Edited book chapters are more similar to Review Articles than Original Research Articles.

  • Thesis / Dissertation
    These are written in completion of a Master's or Doctorate degree. Sometimes, thesis chapters may appear in peer-reviewed journals as independent articles. They are not always easily available.

  • Patent
    Patents are legal documents that protect the intellectual property of the inventor. It gives the inventor the exclusive right to use their invention for a limited amount of time in exchange for making the idea publicly available (as a patent).

Evaluating Resources

Using general web search engines can give you a variety of sources - some may be good as a start to get idea or background information about a topic, even though they are not scholarly research articles. However, it is still important to look for appropriate information. When evaluating a resource (whether it is print or web-based) there are questions you can ask yourself to determine if it is high quality and a good match for your project or paper. These questions fall into the following 5 categories:

Authority
Who created the resource? Are the author, organization, affiliations, and publisher clearly shown? If the page is web-based does it link to information about the organization? Does the author have credintials or expertise in the subject matter? Is the resource from a government agency, university, company, non-profit organization?

Accuracy
Is the information contained in the source properly cited? Is there a bibliography or reference list? Can you verify the information in other sources? Is the information free of grammatical, spelling, and typographical errors? Is the statistical data clearly explained? Are charts and graphs properly represented and cited?

Objectivity
Is the resource free of advertising? Or, if there is advertising, is it clearly seperate from content? Is there any bias? Is the sponsoring organization bias or motivated to report facts from a particular perspective?

Currency
When was the resource created? When was it updated or revised? Is it kept current? When was the information gathered?

Coverage
Is the information complete? Does it cover the subject in depth? Does it match your information needs?

This information is taken from the University of Florida's ENC 3254 Course Guide, with criteria adapted from a worksheet used by the Widener Science Library.