What's a peer-reviewed journal article?

And how you can find peer-reviewed journals for your first research paper

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Did you just get assigned your first research paper and are wondering about the requirement to use “peer-reviewed” or “scholarly” journal articles?

You’re not alone. I worked as an intern for a while at my university’s library, and I still remember the day a first-year student came up to the reference desk, handed me a piece of paper with the words “scholarly journals” on it, and asked where she could find them.

It’s an easy mistake to think you can just go to a section of the library, find some academic journals, and then look through them to find scholarly articles for a paper. These days, though, libraries are subscribing to fewer and fewer print journals, so you’ll usually be looking through a database instead. Before we get to that, though, what exactly are "peer-reviewed" journals anyway?

What does “peer-reviewed” mean?

A peer-reviewed journal is a journal article that has been selected, reviewed, and then approved for publication by other experts in the author’s field. Often the peer-review process is “double-blind”. This means that the reviewers don’t know the identity of the author and vice versa. Usually, there will be two or three reviewers. The reviewers will make comments and suggest corrections to the author, and the editor of the journal will then look at whether or not the author responded to these changes when deciding if the article should be published. This process can be very time-consuming but is designed to ensure the utmost quality of the published articles.

Where can you find peer-reviewed articles?

If, like the student in my story above, you are looking for peer-reviewed articles for the first time, how can you find them?

First, go to your library website. Many university libraries have a search portal on their website that searches both the library catalog and databases at the same time. If your library has this type of portal, just enter the search terms for your paper, and you’re likely to find a lot of items you have access to.

If your library doesn’t have a search portal for all library resources, it will usually have a “Databases” link. If Databases are listed by subject area, choose the subject area that fits best for your paper topic. If you’re not sure which subject area applies or if your topic is interdisciplinary in nature, use a database like EBSCO’s “Academic Search”. Some databases have an Advanced Search feature that lets you limit results to peer-reviewed journal articles. Other databases might have a filter that lets you narrow down your results to only keep those that are peer-reviewed. Keep an eye out for features like this.

Next, especially if the database you searched doesn’t have an option to limit results to peer-reviewed articles, check what type of sources you’ve found. An article might seem like it’s from a peer-reviewed journal but then turn out to be from a non-scholarly source such as a newspaper or magazine instead. Also, just because you found an article in a database and it’s from an academic journal, doesn’t mean it’s a peer-reviewed article! Book reviews or editorials, for example, are not peer-reviewed.

As mentioned above, most of the peer-reviewed articles you find will be online in a database. Since many students also have the requirement to not use any Internet sources for their first paper, this is understandably confusing, since databases are only accessible online. However, peer-reviewed journal articles found in a database are academic sources, and you don’t need to worry if you use them. If you’re ever unsure, just ask your professor or teaching assistant.

Are pre-prints peer-reviewed? And what are pre-prints anyway?

To make things even more confusing, in your database searches you might sometimes find an article that’s designated with one of the following terms: “pre-print publication”, “working paper”, “online first”, or “Epub ahead of print”. All of these designations mean that an article has not yet completed the entire publication process and appeared in the print edition of a journal. However, if you see “pre-print”, “preprint” or “working paper”, it usually means that the article has not gone through the peer-review process.  

The Life Sciences, Mathematics, and the Physical Sciences tend to use pre-prints more frequently than other disciplines. The main reason is to get feedback before submitting to a journal, lay claim to the results before anyone else does, and to share results more quickly so that they can be used by other researchers.

If you see “online first “or “Epub ahead of print” in an article database, it usually means that the article has been accepted and gone through peer review. The article is just waiting to be published in the print edition of the journal. These types of articles are known as "postprints".

Can you cite a pre-print in your first research paper? If your requirements are to cite only peer-reviewed articles, you shouldn’t cite a pre-print since it hasn’t gone through the peer-review process. You can however cite a postprint, as long as you designate it accordingly. To add a postprint to Citavi, right-click the Year field and then select In press. Enter the article’s date in the Online since field. The citation style you select will then automatically insert the correct designation.

Before you submit your paper, check to see if the article has appeared in print in the meantime. You can do so by clicking the DOI name field label and then selecting Replace bibliographic information. If you now see entries in the volume, year, and issue number fields, the article has been published. Make sure to double-check that anything you cited is still current in the published version of the article. 

Peer-reviewed journal articles in Citavi

Once you’ve found peer-reviewed articles online, it’s easy to transfer them to Citavi. But what about if you’re using Citavi’s online search feature and don’t have filters to help you determine which articles are peer-reviewed and which aren’t?

We recommend importing the results that look interesting and then assigning them the Examine and assess task. Then, at some point before obtaining the full text for the article, go through all references in your project with this task and try to evaluate whether the article is peer-reviewed or not:

  • First, double-check that the source is a journal article. Many journals have the word “Journal” as part of their title, but many do not. The best indication is that the Volume field will have an entry, but pre-prints and some journal articles won’t have this information. A DOI is also a good indication that you’re looking at a journal article, even though DOIs are sometimes also used for conference papers. If you see a full date or a month and year instead of just a year, and if the article is only one or two pages long, you likely have a newspaper article or magazine article instead of a journal article.
  • Next, on the Reference tab, check if there is any source designation in the Title supplement or Notes If you see “Journal Article” or something similar, you’re on the right track, but you also might see “Letter to the editor”, “Letter”, “Editorial” “Book review”, etc., which are not peer-reviewed.
  • Finally, switch to the Content tab and read the abstract if one is available. Does the article appear to contain an experiment or original analysis by the author(s) themselves? Original research often appears in peer-reviewed journals, so this is one additional clue that it could be a peer-reviewed article.

This process will help you weed out sources that very likely are not peer-reviewed, but in some cases you’ll only know for sure after obtaining the full text of the article. On the first or last page of the PDF, you'll often see some information about the publishing process the paper has undergone, for example "Received for publication Dec 13, 2017; revisions received Jan 18, 2019; accepted for publication February 26, 2019".

If you’re ever still unsure if an article has undergone peer review, ask your librarian for help. Librarians are experts in distinguishing different types of sources.

Are there any problems with peer-review?

In 2018 three people purposefully submitted fake journal articles to peer-reviewed journals to see if they could get them published. Astonishingly, 7 out of 20 journal articles were accepted for publication. The journals that published the fake papers have since retracted them.

The hoax was widely reported in the media and has led to many discussions of peer review both inside and outside of academia. Although the authors’ purported goal was to point out the flaws in scholarship practices in certain cultural studies disciplines that they named “grievance studies”, the hoax also showed that peer-review is not a perfect system.

While this news story is one of the biggest concerning peer review, researchers within academia have long pointed out that the system doesn’t guard against statistical fraud or conclusions based on fraudulent data, since reviewers usually don’t have access to the authors’ data sets. Furthermore, some journals let authors submit names of potential reviewers, and it’s been discovered that authors have used fake email addresses or names and then reviewed their own work.

Do these problems mean that we should just scrap the peer review process altogether? There are many people who do indeed want to reform the process, and a number of initiatives such as open peer review have been suggested, which would remove reviewer anonymity.

Even if changes to the system never gain wide acceptance, it’s important to keep in mind that abuses of the system occur in a very small percentage of all published papers. While peer-review can undoubtedly be improved in some ways, on the whole it has proven to be a very good system for ensuring that only quality academic work gets published.


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Created by: Jennifer Schultz – Published on: 2/26/2019
Tags: Beginning students

About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.

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