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BMD 202: Survey of Biomedical Sciences Literature

Evaluating Peer Reviewed Articles

In academic publishing, the goal of peer review is to access the quality of articles submitted for publication in a scholarly journal by experts in a specific field of research.  Before an article is deemed appropriate for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, it must undergo an evaluation process.

peer-review process

Step 1: Submission

  • The author of the article submit it to the journal editor who forwards the article to experts in the field, after it has been processed through the relevant journal submission system.
  • Because the reviewers specialize in the same scholarly area as the author, they are considered the author's peers, hence "peer-review."

Step 2:  Evaluation

  • The impartial reviewers charged with carefully evaluating the quality of the submitted manuscript, often using their own evaluation criteria to assist the review process.
  • Peer-reviewers check the validity of the research methodology and procedures.  In addition, they look for any unethical practice in the research or plagiarism. 

Step 3:  Recommendations

  • Journal editors rely on reviewers to offer guidance on whether to accept or reject an article. 
  • Reviewers recommend one of 3 options.  One, accept the manuscript as is, this is very rare. Two, if appropriate, reviewers will recommend the author makes revisions and then re-submits the article.  Three, reviewers may recommend the editor rejects the article.   

 

Holland,K., Duncombe, D., Dyas, E. & Meester, W. (Last updated 2014). Scopus Journal FAQs: Helping to improve the submission & success process for editors & publishers. Retrieved from https://www.elsevier.com/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/95118/SC_FAQ-content-selection-process-22092014.pdf

Identifying articles on your topic of interest is just one part of finding appropriate articles. You must also constantly assess the credibility of what you're finding. Even if you've confirmed an article is peer-reviewed, you still look at it closely. The following questions can help guide your critical assessment of the articles you find:

  • Is the publication date appropriate for the subject matter at hand?
    • A general rule of thumb for biomedical information is not to put much stock in publications older than 5 years. However, there may be exceptions depending on the topic and your objective.
  • What are the author's credentials?
    • Also note whether s/he is from a university, research institute, or government agency. If the writer is a journalist, you should try to identify the original study or scientific article s/he is writing about.
  • Is the article peer-reviewed? 
    • Databases like CINAHL allow you to narrow your search to only peer-reviewed articles. However, you still need to be able to look for clues that an article is peer-reviewed, such as the presence of a bibliography or the appropriate credentials of the author. If ever in doubt, a good trick is to Google the journal title to find the journal's website. If the journal and its articles are peer-reviewed, it will likely say so under the "About" section of the journal's website.
  • Are there conflicts of interest or reasons to suspect bias?
    • For example, if an article claims that a certain drug is effective at treating a condition but you notice the author is a researcher from a drug company, you might investigate further to make sure s/he does not have a vested interest in publishing positive results.
  • Are sound scientific methods used?
    • Study the Methods section of an article and evaluate it for any red flags. For example, is the sample size small? If so, does the author acknowledge this as a study limitation later in the article?

One other important point: When we set out to find articles on a topic, we typically have preconceived notions or hypotheses (either formal or informal) and often expect the literature to report certain findings that support our suspicion. However, it's important to keep an open mind while searching! Don't discount articles simply because they are not in line with your thinking. Evaluation of the literature needs to be "fair and balanced." :-)

Source: Scientific Papers and Presentations, 3rd ed. (2012) by Martha Davis, Kaaron Joann Davis, pg. 39-42

Additional Resources

These resources provide additional criteria to consider when evaluating scholarly articles.

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