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Psychology Research Methods

Understanding Scholarly Articles

Scholarly articles include articles that report on original research, often called primary source or research article, and articles that synthesizes the results of research done by others, often called reviews or meta-analyses. Reviews and meta-analyses can also be refered to as secondary sources. Both types of articles are useful, but in your time as a student you may be asked to find one or the other for different assignments. Research articles, reviews, and meta-analyses are generally peer-reviewed. See the boxes to the right for more information on peer-review

Identifying a research articles

Research articles are sometimes also called primary sources because the are a report of original research. If you have been directed by your professor to include a primary source in a project you are working on you may feel a little lost. Here are some pointers on how to determine if the article you found is a primary source.

A majority of research articles published in the sciences follow the same format and have the same components:

  1. Abstract - Summarizes the article. The abstract is found at the beginning of the article, and often times on the database entry page for the article. 
  2. Introduction - States the research question or hypothesis and provides background information on the research. 
  3. Materials and Methods - Describes the materials and methods used in the research. 
  4. Results - Lists the results, frequently in tabular or graph form, without commentary or discussion. 
  5. Discussion - Highlights and discusses the important results. The discussion may also highlight potential flaws in the research as well as point out where more research is needed.
  6. Acknowledgements - Thank individuals for their contributions to the research process.
  7. Works cited - List of the materials cited in the article.  

Scanning an article for these seven components will help you determine if the article you are looking at is a research article. Review articles may follow a similar format, but they will list databases and search strategies under the materials and methods. 

Keep in mind the research looks different in different fields. The materials and methods for research in the social sciences looks very different from the materials in chemistry. 

Identifying a Review or Meta-analysis

Reviews and meta-analyses are considered "secondary sources" because they report on and synthesize research published by others. Reviews and meta-analyses are useful because they can provide a good overview of the findings and trends in a particular area of research. However, a review or meta-anlysis is not appropriate if your professor wants you to find primary sources.

Reviews and meta-analyses typically do not follow the structure outlined above. They will often omit the "materials and methods" section or describe database searching in the "materials and methods". Reviews and meta-analyses will also typically state in the title, abstract, or introduction that the article is a review or meta-analysis.

Tips on Reading a Research Paper

What is Peer Review?

You may wonder what peer-review is, and why it is so important. Watch this video from the NCSU Libraries to find out! 

Is it peer review?

Many of our databases allow you to limit searches to content from peer-reviewed journals only. 

Remember! Not all content in a peer-reviewed journal is peer-reviewed. The editorials, letters to the editor, and book reviews are typically not peer-reviewed. 


You may see dissertations in your search results when searching the databases. A dissertation is a book-length document written by doctoral students. Some databases classify dissertations as "peer-reviewed" because in order to graduate, students go through a process of presenting their dissertation to scholars in their field.

Dissertations can have valuable and interesting primary research in them, but you should avoid them for research in this class. While the database may classify a dissertation as "peer-reviewed", it has not gone through a true peer-review process. It can also be hard to get the full-text of a dissertation. They may be locked behind a paywall, and often are not lent through inter-library loan.