How to recognize a scientific article

Sample lesson


ThesisCore is an online course that helps you write your Bachelor’s or Master’s dissertation: from start to finish!

This is a sample lesson from the course:
How to develop your thesis topic.

In this lesson we discuss how to distinguish scientific articles, i.e. articles which you can use as a source in your dissertation, from non-scientific articles, i.e. those which you cannot use.


Objective
Learn to spot the difference between scientific and non-scientific literature.

Introduction

Now that you know your topic, it’s time to get familiar with some literature. You may wonder: what should I read for my thesis at this stage? The answer is relatively straightforward: anything that interests you! But as you may suspect, you cannot use everything for your thesis. There is a difference between literature that may help you (further) develop your idea, and literature that you can use as a reference for your dissertation: scientific articles.

Scientific articles are research reports, published in academic journals. This is what sets them apart from research published elsewhere, such as research published in popular magazines, internet blogs, the newspaper or television. In your thesis, you must use scientific articles. Therefore, it is important to be able to recognize a scientific article.

Recognizing a scientific article

What follows are elements of a proper scientific article: if these elements are present in your article(s), you can be certain you are reading a scientific article. If they are not1, then there is a high probability that what you are reading is not considered scientific literature. I will use the following article by Hirschman (2016), ‘Stylized Facts in the Social Sciences’, as an illustration:

Hirschman
The first page of the article by Hirschman, adapted from page 604 of the article which appeared in Sociological Science (2016). Click to open this picture in full-screen.

Author

The author’s name is posted on the front of the article. Usually, the author’s position is not a part of the name: you will not likely see ‘Professor Doe’ written on an article, but instead the author’s ‘normal’ name, such as: ‘John Doe’. The same goes for co-authors. Non-scientific literature such as magazines and newspapers do often print the position of the person who wrote the article alongside the author’s name: this is an easy giveaway that what you are reading is not a scientific article. Non-scientific papers also often include a photograph of the author, which is another tell-tale sign that you are not dealing with a proper scientific article.

Affiliation

The author’s affiliation is posted on the front of the article. The affiliation, in 99% of the cases, is the university that the researcher works at. In our example, the authors works at Brown University.

Occasionally, the affiliation will be the research institute at which the researcher is employed. For example: the National Bureau of Economic Research) or World Bank]. Sometimes, additional information about the affiliation is printed on the front of the article, usually at the bottom. For example:

“John Doe is Professor of Comparative Sociology at the University of Vienna.”

Abstract

The next thing to look for is an Abstract, which is a summary of the research article, typically no longer than 10 sentences. It usually is preceded by the word ‘Abstract’, but this is not always the case: occasionally, you may find the term ‘Summary’ instead of ‘Abstract’ (although ‘Abstract’ is the more common term). Often, the words of the abstract are printed in bold face or in italics, or in a slightly smaller font than the rest of the article. Sometimes, the Abstract is clearly demarcated from the rest of the cover because it is posted in a box, or in a different color (like the example).

Journal reference

The complete reference to the article is often printed on the front of a scientific article, usually on the very top or bottom of the page. It tells you the:

  • Journal name
  • Volume and/or Issue
  • Year
  • Page numbers

In the example posted above, you see that at the bottom it says:

  • Sociological Science
  • Issue 3
  • 2016
  • Pages 604-626

References

A scientific article always contains a References section or so-called Bibliography, where all the references from the article are collected and presented in alphabetical order. Usually this section is one of the last of the paper.

References
The References section of the article by Hirschman, adapted from page 623 of the article which appeared in Sociological Science (2016).

Style and color

A final tell-tale sign of a scientific article is that the style is very simple: most articles are printed in black-and-white, with no pictures or graphics, apart from scientific figures and graphs. No effort has been put in making it particularly appealing to read. The content is what is most important. In contrast, magazine articles or blogs are often very colorful, and include pictures and multiple font styles. For these articles, the form is more important.

Related: Science Journalism

magazine

There are some journals that are not really scientific, but at the same time, they are also not really magazines: they are somewhat in-between. A good example is the Harvard Business Review (example posted below). Many of the topics discussed in this magazine are scientific, because many of the authors are researchers at universities. The articles also have a certain ‘academic feel’ to them. However, as you will see many of the elements of a proper scientific article are missing, such as an abstract or journal reference. Also, the article is not really aimed at scientists: it is intended for a broader, non-expert audience. Indeed, these articles are not scientific articles.2

Science Journalism

We call these magazines: Science Journalism. Science journalism’s purpose is to inform a broader audience, in layman’s terms, what research is about. The most significant category of science journalism is Popular Science3, which is comprised of TV-shows such as Myth Busters, National Geographic, or magazines such as Wired or New Scientist.

Use as inspiration

What to do with these kinds of magazines/journals? For starters, these articles are valuable: they often are written in a thought-provoking or inspiring matter, and therefore can serve as inspiration for further developing your own topic. Second, most of the times the article will include a reference to a scientific article about the very same topic. Take the following article from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) that discusses why too much charisma can make leaders look less effective:

Harvard Business Review example
Example article from: the Harvard Business Review.

“[…] our research shows that while having at least a moderate level of charisma is important, having too much may hinder a leader’s effectiveness. We conducted three studies, involving 800 business leaders globally and around 7,500 of their superiors, peers, and subordinates. Leaders occupied different managerial levels, ranging from supervisors to general managers. Our paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

— Source: Harvard Business Review (2017)
— Note: emphasis added

Advice

In short, I advise you to find the original scientific article that accompanies the magazine article, if one of these articles interests you. The scientific article is a good base for writing your thesis, the ‘science journalism’ article not.

Back to Introduction

References

[1]
D. Hirschman.
“Stylized Facts in the Social Sciences”.
In: Sociological Science 3 (2016), pp. 604–626.
DOI: 10.15195/v3.a26.

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