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Biology: For Students: Scholarly Articles +

Use this guide as your first stop to finding and using the Biology resources and services of the UC San Diego Library.

Anatomy of a primary paper

Abstract: summary of the article

Introduction: background information and a description of the author’s purpose  

Materials & Methods: how the study was performed with enough detail so that other scientists could repeat the study  

Results: includes new observations, data and findings 

Discussion: a description of what the findings mean and their implications; address potential criticisms

Reading an article

First, skim the article. Read the abstract and skim the Introduction and Discussion.

Second, read and take notes. If you think the article will support your topic, then read the entire article. Be sure to take good notes (see box below).

If you can answer the following questions about the article, then you have a pretty good understanding of it.

  1. How does the research fit in with what was previously known?
  2. In your own words, what is the author's hypothesis?
  3. How was the study designed?
  4. What were the author's conclusions?
  5. How is the study relevant to what you are researching?
  6. Who does the author represent? How was the study funded?

Note taking

There is no right way to take notes. You should find the method that works best for you. If you are unfamilar with note-taking methods, these are good places to start.

Learn more

These books offer great tips on how to read a scholarly article.

Video: Scholarly Articles

This three minute video provides a quick overview of features of scholarly articles.

Key features of scholarly resources

Scholarly works have specific qualities that set them apart from the popular works like newspapers, and magazines, e.g. Time, Newsweek, etc. Unfortunately, there is no perfect definition for "scholarly", as it can have multiple meanings and may not always look exactly the same. The following are the commonly used descriptions of scholarly works.

Original Research or "Primary Source"
Scholarly journals publish researcher's original work. The articles will tell you:

  • what, why, and how the researcher did the work
  • results of the work, including key data (often in figures,tables, or charts)
  • provide a discussion of the results and conclusions about the work

    Written by and for experts in a particular field
    Scholarly articles are written by authors who have credentials and experience with the subject to alert other experts to what they found. Typically, the language used includes technical terms and jargon common to that field.

      Published in a journal specific to the field
      Many specialty areas have journals dedicated to that field, and this can be an indicator of its scholarly emphasis.

      "Peer-Review" or "Refereed"
      Some articles undergo an additional process. Before acceptance and publication by a journal, a panel of experts (not the journal editor) will review & evaluate the article. Suggestions for changes are often made to clarify certain points or it could be rejected. The process is sometimes noted on the article itself with submitted, reviewed, accepted dates.

      Not sure if a journal is peer-reviewed? You can check the Ulrich's Periodicals Directory to see if the journal is listed as "refereed". After searching using the journals name, look for the little icon that looks like a referee's shirt.Ulrich's icon

        Remember, some "secondary sources" can be scholarly. The previous points relate to journals and articles, but some books may also meet the definition of scholarly. Those texts that have editors and multiple authors are the most likely candidates as the sections have been written by experts in a particular field. You will also notice that every chapter has references.

          Can you spot one when you see it?

          Look for these features of a scholarly article

          While you probably have never given much thought to scholarly articles and those qualities that make an article scholarly, if you think about it, you can probably think of a few things that are typical in scholarly works. A few of the characteristics include:

          • Author or list of authors and their academic credentials.
          • Institutional affiliations of the authors.
          • References of works cited in the article.
          • A structured abstract - Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion.
          • Marks of the peer-review process -- dates of submission, review, and acceptance.

          Sometimes, a quick visual check may convince you that an article is a scholarly or even a peer-reviewed one. What do you notice about the following excerpts from JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association)?

          Screen shot from JAMA

          What about this one from the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association?

          Screen shot from JAMIA
          Did you notice the received and accepted dates? These dates reflect the peer-review process the article went throught before being published.