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Biology Research Guide

How to do research in biology (and other sciences)

Refine your search results

Once you've searched a databases using your strategic keywords, you may need to refine your results even further to get to the most appropriate materials. 

Instead of thinking about sources in terms of "good" and "bad" think of them in terms of relevance to your research needs. What are some criteria you should think about when determining what is relevant to your need?


Does the publication date matter to your topic? If you need to look at the most recent research on a topic, limit the results to the last 5 years. Sometimes, though, it is useful to see older materials to see how research, ideas, or results have changed over time. 

Should it be peer-reviewed?

For most academic research, you need to find peer-reviewed materials. Peer-review is an agreed upon indicator of quality, valid, and original research. So, yes, focus your search on peer-reviewed materials. In EBSCO databases, there is a Peer-Review limiter on the left-hand side of the results. What is peer-review? Click over to the Reliability and Reputability tab to watch a short video explanation!

The video below is a quick demonstration on how to narrow your search results to Peer-Reviewed materials in QuickSearch and any of our Ebsco databases.

Note: The actual tools to refine the results are different depending on the database. If you need help figuring out how to refine results in a particular database, contact a librarian!

Full-text limiter

Oh great, you can limit to full-text only articles! Although it is convenient, it is not best practice to do so. SHU Library has access to materials across a wide variety of databases. So what is not available in one, may be available in another. Go to Full-text Options to find out more about what resources are available to you!

Popular versus Scholarly

You might be wondering if you even know what a scholarly article looks like. How are you supposed to know if you've never seen one? To figure out what a scholarly article is, it is good to start by comparing it to something with which you are already familiar: popular articles. You might not read actual glossy magazines, but think of Teen VOGUE, Men's Health, Time or the Economist, any of the titles pictured above. Popular and scholarly resources have certain characteristics that help you tell the difference between them. See the table below. 

Popular Scholarly
shorter longer, at least 7 pages, multiple columns on each page
written for a general audience, even when included in discipline specific magazine (ex. Psychology Today) are written by experts in their field, for other experts; Peer-reviewed
written by the employees of the periodical who may or may not have experience or credentials on the topic authors have credentials to be considered experts: PhD, MD, MA/MS
language is not technical and does not have a lot of jargon; easier to read and understand language can be very technical and varies by subject. This can make these articles difficult to understand for people new to the field (students)
little to no actual citations and no bibliography/works cited list full of citations and include a long list of references
contain advertisements and/or pictures visual representation of data (charts, graphs, tables); no advertisements
come out more frequently: daily, weekly or monthly come out less frequently: quarterly (4xs/year), twice, or once a year


What is an academic journal?

Published, scholarly information comes in a variety of packages, but the most dominant form overall is the research article, which is published in an academic journal. 

An academic journal is a serialized publication, like a magazine or newspaper, though they are often published with less frequency like only once a year! Typically academic journals are published annually, quarterly, bimonthly, or monthly. They are published by places like university presses, academic societies, or commercial publishers. Most have a specific disciplinary focus, such as modern history, astrophysics, or French literature, and the primary audience for these publications will be students and researchers in those disciplinary areas.

Let's look at an example of a scholarly journal!

American Philosophical Quarterly, Cover*Image from:

This is the journal American Philosophical Quarterly (APQ). It's an academic journal published four times per year.

From the website:

\*Image from:

As you can see from the text above, it's published by a university press (University of Illinois) and it's published on behalf of another group, North American Philosophical Publications. Having publishers publishing materials on behalf of another group, such as a learned society, is a common in academic journal publishing.

Reputability and Reliability

What if you found some research articles outside of a database, like through a Google Scholar search? How can you tell if something like that is peer-reviewed?

With materials that you find outside of SHU library databases, you will need to do some Googling to figure out if they are peer-reviewed. Search for the title of the journal in which the article appears. Try to find that journal's homepage, or the publisher's page for that journal. The About page should have an explicit statement that the journal is peer-reviewed. If you can't find that information no matter where you look, that journal is likely not peer-reviewed.

Journal Impact Factor

Many scientists evaluate journal reputability by checking the Impact Factor/ISI Journal Citation Reports Ranking. Most journals will list these numbers on their website. A low Impact Factor (IF) does not necessarily mean that the journal is not reputable. Impact Factors tend to be lower the more discipline or field-specific the journal is because its intended audience is smaller. For example, many of the top marine ecology journals have IFs of 2.5 to 3.5 simply because they are specific to a relatively small field. The top general ecology journals have IFs of 3.5 to 15. High Impact Factor journals (20+) tend not to be field-specific.

What is the article's impact on the field?

If an article has been cited many times in other scholars' work, it is likely a very important piece of research, and has had a big impact on the field. Databases may have some kind of proprietary tool that "predicts" the impact of an article based on statistics such as the number of times cited, shared on social media, publishing journal, etc. Don't put too much weight into these tools. Just know, in theory, an article's impact on the field is traditionally scored by how many times it was cited by other articles. Of course, there are always exceptions.

Primary, peer-reviewed journal articles contain BOTH:

  • Materials & Methods: materials used in experiments, detailed experimental protocols
  • Results: figures, graphs and tables of original data generated with the materials and methods used

Secondary peer-reviewed literature:

  • Scientific review articles, systematic reviews, literature reviews, and opinion pieces with many references at the end.
  • Methods and Results revolve around compiling and analyzing previously published literature.
    • Methodology will include searching terminology similar to what is in the "searching" section of this article.
  • Some books are considered secondary source.