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Peer review is a form of quality control in academic publishing. Before books or articles are published, they experience a rigorous process of evaluation by at least three experts who have advanced training in the field of study in question. These “referees,” as they are known, review the work anonymously. This anonymity theoretically ensures a more honest appraisal of the work under consideration for publication. When it works as intended, this scholarly review helps eliminate factual errors and other problems before the works are published. Thus, peer-reviewed works are more trustworthy than other sources of information.
Determining if a source is peer-reviewed
For novice researchers, distinguishing peer-reviewed sources from other published information can be challenging. Perhaps the best advice is to use only sources that you located within the library system, rather than things you found with a search engine on the open internet. You are far more likely to encounter trustworthy sources this way. Of course, it is also frequently the case that excellent information may be found on the open web; in these cases, we must use our best judgment to determine if the source is trustworthy or not. If you are confused about a source, ask your professor or one of the research librarians for assistance in making a determination.
Quick tests for peer review
Here are a few test criteria that you may use to make a judgment call about whether a source has been peer reviewed:
- Scholarly, peer-reviewed books are often published by an academic press associated with a college or university of repute. These publishers will have names like: Yale University Press or Duke University Press.
- Scholarly, peer-reviewed articles are almost always written by credentialed scholars (often the text will contain the university affiliation of the professor/author/scientist).
- Scholarly articles and books always have a bibliography.
- Scholarly articles always contain citations and commonly have footnotes or endnotes.
- Generally speaking, if you can find the publication at the dentist’s office or on an airport magazine rack, then it isn’t scholarly or peer-reviewed.
- If the article contains advertisements, it is likely not scholarly.
How to find peer-reviewed sources
Many periodical databases only contain peer-reviewed academic articles. A good example is JSTOR. Any article you find there will have been peer reviewed. Many other databases, such as Academic Search Complete, have search limiters that can be selected to ensure that the search results only contain peer-reviewed sources. Our own library catalog search engine provides the ability to limit the search to peer-reviewed books and periodicals.
Visit our library catalog and perform a search without the peer review box checked. Use the search string
zombie AND apocalypse. What happens to the search results when you choose to filter the results by selecting
peer-reviewed contentin the left pane?
Visit the database Academic Search Complete and perform the same search as above. This database uses the term
Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journalsfor its search limiter. What happens to the search results when you use the limiter?
Find a few other databases associated with a research topic or field of study that is important to you. You can use the Research Guides to locate them. View a few of these databases, selected at random, and see how they approach, or fail to approach, this feature.