This page will describe the elements of academic writing. It will highlight the differences between popular and peer reviewed materials, and help students identify, critically analyze, and appropriately cite such materials.
Remember, the content and the type of information is far more important than where you find it or the format.
Popular writing contains material written to be understood by most people without a deep educational background in the discipline. The articles, usually found in popular magazines such as Time or Sky and Telescope, often have color pictures. They are usually written by journalists, and the authors do not list their academic credentials as proof of expertise. The content is often an overview of a topic, and does not attempt to be comprehensive. There are rarely citations within the articles, and rarely does the article end with References to the literature. There may be Recommended Readings for finding out more about the topic, and these are frequently books on the topic.
Popular magazine and newspaper articles may be found in Academic Search Complete by limiting results using the facets on the left to select "Magazines" .
World Wide Web and Internet Material
Material found on the Internet can be created by many types of people and organizations. In some cases there may be very high quality and credible material mounted by professional associations, societies, universities, corporations, and other organizations. In other cases the material may be sensational entertainment pieces with no factual basis. Remember, the web contains sites which provide false, misleading, and outrageous content; and some sites appear authoritative but are really only presenting the portion of the material that supports their positions. Everything is written for a purpose, so be alert in order to identify misleading information. Readers must be very critical about the validity of these materials; always look for evidence of reliability such as author credentials, organizational credentials, balanced and reliable references that support the ideas and positions presented, and review the currency of the material used for support.
Searches can be run on many tools, but you may want to start searching using subject portals maintained by reliable organizations ... which selectively point to more reliable materials. (These portals are identified at the bottom of our Search by Type of Information subject help pages.) Additional information can be found on our Evaluating Websites page.
Academic writing is intended for other researchers in a field, and assumes a significant amount of prior knowledge in the field. Academic manuscripts are frequently submitted for peer review (review for accuracy by other experts) before publication.
Academic articles frequently contain specific elements and characteristics:
These initial reports of methods and findings are referred to as Primary Literature. Even though academic articles have passed through a rigorous peer review process, one must be careful and critical when reading such documents. More current investigations and findings may update or invalidate earlier findings. (Remember to sort your results by date to have the most recent articles appear first.) Some articles contain errors and you may see errata (correction) reports or retractions. Often other experts will submit follow-up Comments and /or Letters to the Editor about the primary research; these types of materials will appear in Academic Journals, but are not Primary Literature. Be sure to look for the elements described above to determine that your article is a Primary material.
On occasion, experts will write Review articles which provide a state-of-the-art update for a field. This synthesis of previous work can help new researchers in a field become familiar with the current trends, names, and theories in a discipline. These reviews of primary research reports are called Secondary Literature, and they have great value; but do not mistake them for the original Primary Research articles that contain the full details of experiments with the elements mentioned above.
Errors: Errors in analysis, samples, interpretations, or conclusions can be discovered and recorded after publication as Errata. These modifications to the original works are often included in search results and are entered as Errata links on the database or index article abstract page. Errata to "Coronal Alignment of the Lower Limb and the Incidence of Constitutional Varius Knee in Korean Females"
Improper Behavior: On occasion, some researchers have falsified data or conclusions. This can end a career and jeopardize the future of an organization. See the following example of falsifying lab note books, falsifying lab results, etc. Crucial Data Were Fabricated In Report Signed by Top Biologist.
Trade publications are written for a specific audience, assume a deep understanding of the field, and generally provide updates on trends in an industry. They do not contain many references to prior research or citations to supporting information. While these industry newsletters are important for managers and researchers, they are not considered peer reviewed and should not be used as scholarly publications.
Academic (peer review) articles may be found in Academic Search Complete by limiting results using the facets on the left to select "journal articles" or "peer reviewed" materials. Academic articles may also be discovered in other subject indexes such as SCOPUS, PsycINFO, PubMed, SciFinder Scholar, and many more found in our list of databases.
Another type of primary literature is original personal notes, correspondence, and diaries. This type of material is often found in special collections and/or attics, and can be very helpful for understanding the conditions under which people lived at the time. Remember that every personal record is biased by that person's circumstances, beliefs, and external pressures. These are not peer reviewed materials, so you must treat these with critical reasoning to find the embedded assumptions and perspectives. Only historians with holistic knowledge of the time can perform valid assessments of such personal materials.
Searching for types of writing
ACADEMIC (peer review) articles may be found in:
POPULAR (magazine) articles may be found in Academic Search Complete by limiting results using the facets on the left to select "Magazines".
Style Guides for citations and subject writing:
There are a variety of writing and citation styles used based upon your discipline. For details about citation standards see our Citation-Style Guides page.