Welcome to Teach Write! This column draws on my 20 years’ experience teaching writing to kids, university students, and adult learners. It includes ideas and exercises that teachers and students can use in the classroom, and creative writers can use to level up their process.
Last time we compared primary and secondary sources and talked about how to use them when researching writing assignments or creative projects. Today, we’re getting a bit more practical, with some tips for finding and accessing peer-reviewed journal articles, the gold-standard of primary sources. But first…
What IS Peer Review Anyway?
You know how factories have quality control systems in place to ensure that their products meet a certain standard before being offered to customers? Peer-review is quality control for knowledge. It’s a way of ensuring that the new facts and ideas that are produced during research are as accurate and trustworthy as possible, BEFORE they make it into print. Here’s the short version:
- Researchers submit a paper describing their work to a professional journal
- The editor sends the paper to 2-5 other researchers who are working in the same field
- Those experts (the peers of the original researchers) review the paper for errors, flawed logic, bad research practices, alternative possibilities that should have been considered but weren’t, and anything else they think isn’t up to scratch
- The authors of the paper have to make every single change the reviewers suggest, OR come up with really good reasons why not
- If the editor believes the paper has improved enough, it will be published
It’s an extensive, time-consuming, chocolate-binge-inducing process* and it doesn’t always work… but it’s the best method yet invented for vetting new knowledge. This quality control process is the reason that journal articles are often considered even better sources of information than other primary sources, like interviews.**
Now that we know WHAT peer-reviewed articles are, let’s talk about how to get them. There are two methods, depending on whether or not you have access to a university library. We’ll start with “yes I do” and go from there.
Accessing Journal Articles Using University Libraries
First things first, you need to find yourself a database – a searchable digital index that includes information on articles from a whole whack of different journals. If you’re researching in the STEM fields, you want Web of Science. It is hands down the best source for science and technology. For other fields, ask the reference librarian to recommend a good database.
Reference librarians: best friends of both students and professional writers. Also, they are usually bored, so take them your questions and you’ll make their day.
Most databases will let you search by title, author, or keyword, depending on where you are in the process. Try a range of different keywords related to your topic, because you might get different results. If you need help navigating the database, who will you ask? That’s right, the reference librarian. 😉
Journal articles are now published in PDF, and many journals are industriously digitizing their paper back issues. Most databases will include links or buttons that allow you to download those PDFs directly, either through your university library’s subscription, or from the journal itself, if the article is Open Access (meaning free to read).
What do you do if your library doesn’t have a subscription, and the article is behind a paywall? Request an interlibrary loan (ILL) – in a few days to a week or so, you’ll get an email with the PDF or a link to download it for free. Easy peasy!
Accessing Journal Articles in Other Ways
If you’re not part of a university community, you can still access journal articles, but you will need to be a little bit more creative. First things first, you need – you guessed it – a database.
Hop on over to Google Scholar. Unlike university databases, which universities pay huge subscription fees for, Google Scholar is free. It shows. The search functions are basic and a little erratic, and there aren’t as many options for sorting and displaying and filtering results in ways that are useful to serious researchers. This can make Scholar intensely frustrating to use, but it does have one advantage – if the article is Open Access and free to download, Scholar displays a direct link right on the search results. Compared to combing through a Journal’s online archives to find the volume and issue that contains the paper you need, those direct links are wonderfully convenient.
Not getting anywhere with Scholar? Google news articles on your topic. News or magazine articles often draw from original research that’s been published in a peer-reviewed journal. If this is the case, the journalist typically mentions one or more authors of that original research paper by name, and includes the name of the journal the research was published in. If you’re very lucky, there will be a direct link to the article. If not, you can Google the journal’s home page, then use the journal’s search function to find the author’s name(s). That will lead you to the paper, and probably a couple others that are relevant, too!
Likewise, University Media Departments. Colleges and universities and other places where knowledge-makers work typically have media departments that publicize information on breakthroughs their employees are making – this is another way to get tips on author and journal names.
What if the article is not Open Access? More and more research IS being published under the Open Access model, but a lot of it… isn’t. Most peer-reviewed journals charge between $20-$50 to download a single article. That is a lot of money for the average writer, especially if you’re using multiple sources in your research.***
Do not pay the download fee unless you’ve done at least one of the following first:
- checked for a similar, Open Access article that will work for your needs
- emailed the corresponding author to ask for a free reprint
Requesting Reprints. Little known fact. When researchers publish their work in peer-reviewed journals, they receive a free “author copy” of the paper. This is called a “reprint.” Many moons ago, when I published my first journal article, I got a fat envelope containing 35 shiny printed copies of my article — today, authors receive PDFs. In either case, these reprints are intended to be distributed, for free, to researchers and writers who can’t access them in other ways. To get one, you email the paper’s “corresponding author.”
First, find the listing for the article on the journal’s homepage. If you’re looking at the short listing provided in the issue’s Table of Contents, make sure to click through to the full listing for the article. Somewhere on that page, probably in tiny font, you will find the name and email address of the corresponding author. The corresponding author is responsible for handling reprint requests – send them a brief, polite note explaining who you are and asking for a reprint of the paper. In most cases, you’ll get a pretty quick response!
Pro tip: the corresponding author is also the person who will answer interview questions about the research. More on interview protocol and etiquette in future columns.
Any other tips for finding and accessing peer-reviewed journal articles? I’d love to hear strategies you’ve used, whether they were successful or not!
*she says from experience
**of course, the best source of information is LOTS of sources of information – multiple sources allow us to compare and contrast different viewpoints, as well as identifying bias or errors or old ideas that have since been re-evaluated.
***you should be – see previous footnote.