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Using Refereed/Peer-Reviewed Research

This tutorial will help you understand, identify, and use research from refereed and peer-reviewed sources by examining specific examples from the University of Illinois.  

Why is Refereed/Peer-Reviewed Research Important?

  • Research tests assumptions and observations made about people, things, and processes and creates new knowledge that may be used to improve our lives or alter our environments.
  • In most fields, professional literature includes many articles based on personal observations and opinions. Research provides the theoretical framework needed to understand the information reported by individual practitioners.
  • Refereed/peer-reviewed research is a reliable source of accurate information that can be used to create new scholarship.

What Does Research Accomplish?

Depending on the kind of research being conducted, it may accomplish many different things. Two major types of research are:

Basic Research

Basic Research seeks to uncover truth and to create new knowledge. It is not directly related to technical or practical problems, and does not specify ways to use this knowledge to solve problems.
Example: A study analyzing how physicians look for medical information.

Applied Research

Applied research seeks to solve real-life problems. Using a variety of techniques, this research aims to develop solutions and recommendations that can be used by professionals in the field to improve practices.
Example: A study examining how information systems can be used to improve the ability of physicians to diagnose illnesses more accurately.

How Do I Recognize Refereed/Peer-Reviewed Research?

Research is sometimes hard to identify because there are so many types of research. Data for research is collected in a number of ways, but some of the most popular methods include:

  • Observation
  • Questionnaires
  • Interviews
  • Content Analysis
  • Historical Source Analysis
  • Controlled Experiments

What to Look for in a Refereed/Peer-Reviewed Journal

While plenty of research is published in books, the majority of current research is published in "academic" or "scholarly" journals.  Most scholarly journals are "refereed."  The articles in such journals have completed the peer-review process. Outlined below are some popular characteristics of refereed journals. Note that numerous exceptions occur for all of the points listed below:

  • Title : The title of a refereed journal usually has an "academic" sounding name.
  • Topic : Research articles tend to be highly specific in nature, relate to a particular field, or specialty within a field, and are written by authors who have done research in the field.
  • Audience : The target audience is other researchers, colleagues, students, and specialists in the same field. Research articles are written for the scientific community rather than a general audience.
  • Language : The language of research articles is formal, generally does not use the first person, and includes jargon used in the field. Research articles are written to contribute to the knowledge base of the discipline.
  • Length : Research articles can vary in length, but are typically five to fifty pages long.
  • Authors : Research articles may have numerous authors. The organization, institute or professional society the authors belong to will be listed.
  • Content : Generally the article is written at a sophisticated level.  A reader may need to read the article more than once in order to understand and evaluate it.
  • Issue identification : Each issue has a publishing date, volume number and issue number. Generally a volume number is consistent throughout the calendar year, with each issue assigned a corresponding number. Example: vol. 55, issue 4.
  • Length : A peer-reviewed journal issue may have one to fifty articles, with most having eight to eighteen.
  • Advertising and graphics : Very little, if any, advertising is included in peer-reviewed journals. Any advertising that is included will directly relate to the field. Generally journals of this nature do not have illustrations and use black print on white paper. The size of the journal may vary from a small paperback size to a large magazine format.
  • Table of contents : In addition to research articles, peer-reviewed journals may contain book reviews, literature reviews, and essays. Therefore, just because an article is published in a refereed journal, it does not necessarily mean that it is a research article!
  • Publishing : Peer-reviewed journals are usually published regularly - once a week, once a month, every quarter, or annually. The majority of journals are published four to six times per year and are often published by a professional society, organization or research institution, though many are also published by for-profit presses.
  • Editorial board : Articles in peer-reviewed journals have successfully completed the peer-review process. This process is guided by the journal's editorial board. The editorial board is listed (generally at the beginning of the journal) along with the organizations they are affiliated with. Information about what types of papers are chosen for publication, the selection process, the length of papers accepted, and how to submit a paper is also provided, either within the journal itself or on the publisher's website.
  • Indexing : A listing of where the peer-reviewed journal is indexed is often provided.
  • Availability : The location, call number, and availability of the journal can be determined by using the online catalog. Most scholarly journals are available online (and in some cases, only online); use the Online Journals & Databases database or the Journal and Article Locator to connect to them.

Image of a journal article with key features highlighted

What to Look for in a Refereed/Peer-Reviewed Article

Another way to identify a refereed/peer-reviewed research article is by its format. Scan the article for some of the section headings listed below. Remember that not all research articles will have all of the sections listed, and they may contain some sections not listed below:

  • Title
  • Abstract : summarizes the article and help you to determine the relevance of article to your interests
  • Introduction or literature review : provides background
  • Purpose of the study: usually contains a hypothesis or problem statement
  • Methodology : describes the procedures for collecting data or developing the research design
  • Major Findings : gives an overview of the results, analysis or discussion
  • Summary or Conclusion: often includes recommendations for future studies or discussion of implications
  • Works cited : can also be called "References" or "Bibliography"
  • Notes
  • Appendices
  • Tables, charts, figures, statistical data may appear throughout the article

Other Ways to Identify Refereed/Peer-Reviewed Journals

Three additional strategies for finding refereed/peer-reviewed journals:

  • Ulrich's Periodicals Directory is an electronic resource that indicates whether a journal is "refereed" (which is the same thing as being peer-reviewed). It also provides other helpful information about the journal, such as journal language, place of publication, or ISSN.
  • The journal's web site will usually state if it is a refereed or peer-reviewed title. You can also look for some of the characteristics mentioned above, like issue identification, an editorial board, or indexing information. Most journal web sites can be found by searching for the journal's title using Google's search engine.
  • Online indexes, such as Academic Search Premier and equivalent sources in specific disciplines, often allow you to limit your search to only peer-reviewed journals.  Sometimes peer-reviewed journals will be tagged with a unique icon.

Where Do I Find Refereed/Peer-Reviewed Research?

You can find peer-reviewed Research in databases. Databases are repositories of article information from journals, magazines, conferences, and sometimes books and newspapers. Databases cover a wide range of topics. Example: INSPEC and Compendex index engineering information while MathSciNet covers math.

Database suggestions for your discipline are listed on your Departmental Library's homepage. Here is a full list of all of the libraries on campus. If you're not sure which campus library serves your major, visit our Libraries by College/Major page and you'll be able to find a link there. You can access the University's databases through the  Online Journals & Databases page by searching for the journal or database title, or clicking on one of the listed subject areas. 

Online Journals & Databases

Need help using a specific database? Take a look at the University of Illinois' Database Tutorials.

Finding a Copy of the Article

Many databases offer a full text feature which links you directly to an article, so you can download and print it directly off the Internet. Explore databases that you use regularly to determine if they have this feature (usually denoted by a .pdf icon or notepad and "Full Text").

image showing the PDF and HTML full-text icons

If you do not see a full text option, don't worry! Due to the large number of databases the University of Illinois subscribes to, you may have access to an article through another database. To find out, click on the "Discover UIUC Full-Text Linking" button found next to your search results.

Screen shot showing the "Discover UIUC full-text linking" button

If our electronic access does not cover the date of your source, you can check our library for print versions of the item. Enter the title of the journal, book, conference or newspaper into the library catalog and choose "Title" in the drop-down menu next to the search box:

Title search in catalog for Victorian Newsletter

This will tell you if our library holds the source, and where it is located:

Victorian Newsletter holdings

How Do I Tell if a Website Features Research?

Online sources can be a valuable tool if you know how to accurately assess the value and validity of the online information source. Use these categories as a guide:

Source of Information

  • In trying to determine the validity of a web page, it is useful to see what type of organization publishes the page.
  • Sites ending in .edu or .gov are generally more accurate and trustworthy than most, since they emanate from academic and governmental organizations.
  • Be sure you are not looking at a student page located on an academic server, which may or may not be as authoritative as a page produced by the school.

Bia s

  • Can you tell why this information was created? Bias can often be determined based on the source of the information.
  • For example, if you are looking at a commercial site, are they accurately portraying information, or bending the truth to fit their needs?

Accur acy

  • Begin by looking for spelling mistakes, poor grammar, and typos.
  • Next, look at the sources quoted within the page. Are they well-known, trusted sources and people with expertise in the field at hand?

If the page is published by a trusted source, free from obvious bias, and accurate, then it is generally considered acceptable for research purposes. Consider the differences between these two examples:


screen shot of students.gov with key features highlighted


screen shot of princetonreview.com with key features highlighted


Want more information about using Internet sources? Visit the University of Illinois' Guide to Evaluating Internet Sources.