As a reader, you know whether a journal article is good or not by any number of signs. Within your own field of expertise, you know quality research when you see it: you know, because you have done research yourself and you have read & learnt lots about others’ research. But what about when it’s not in your field of expertise?
Perhaps the most reliable marker of quality is, if the article has been recommended to you by an expert in the field. But if you find something intriguing for yourself that is outside of your usual discipline, how do you know if its any good? It’s a good idea to ask someone for advice, and if you know someone already then great, but if not then there’s a lot you can do for yourself, before you reach out for help, to ensure that you strike a good impression on a new contact.
Librarians teach information skills and we might suggest that you look for such clues as:
- relevance: skim the article: is it something that meets your need? – WHAT
- the author(s): do you know the name: is it someone whose work you value? If not, what can you quickly find out about them, eg other publications in their name or who funds their work: is there a likely bias to watch out for? – WHO & WHY
- the journal title/publisher: do you already know that they usually publish high quality work? Is it peer reviewed and if so, how rigorously? What about the editorial board: any known names here? Does the journal have an impact factor? Where is it indexed: is it in the place(s) that you perform searches yourself? – WHERE
- date of publication: is it something timely to your need? – WHEN
- references/citations: follow some: are they accurate and appropriate? When you skim read the item, is work from others properly attributed & referenced? – WHAT
- quality of presentation: is it well written/illustrated? Of course, absolute rubbish can be eloquently presented, and quality research badly written up. But if the creators deemed the output of high enough value for a polished effort, then maybe that’s a clue. – HOW
- metrics: has it been cited by an expert? Or by many people? Are many reading & downloading it? Have many tweeted or written about it (altmetrics tools can tell you this)? But you don’t always follow the crowd, do you? If you do, then you might miss a real gem, and isn’t your research a unique contribution?! – WHO
I usually quote Rudyard Kipling at this point:
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
So far, so Library school 101. But how do you know if the research within is truly of high quality? If most published research findings are false, as John Ioannides describes, then how do you separate the good from the bad research?
An understanding of the discipline would undoubtedly help, and speed up your evaluation. But you can help yourself further, partly in the way you read the paper. There are some great pieces out there about how to read a scientific paper, eg from Natalia Rodriguez.
As I read something for the first time, I look at whether the article sets itself in the context of existing literature and research: Can you track and understand the connections? The second thing I would look at is the methodology/methods: have the right ones been used? Now this may be especially hard to tell if you’re not an expert in the field, so you have to get familiar with the methodology used in the study, and to think about how it applies to the problem being researched. Maybe coming from outside of the discipline will give you a fresh perspective. You could also consider the other methodologies that might have applied (a part of peer review, for many journals). I like the recommendation from Phil Davis in the Scholarly Kitchen that the methodology chosen for the study should be appropriate or persuasive.
If the chosen methodology just doesn’t make sense to you, then this is a good time to seek out someone with expertise in the discipline, for a further explanation. By now you will have an intelligent question to ask such a contact, and you will be able to demonstrate the depth of your own interest. How do you find a new contact in another discipline? I’ll plug Piirus here, whose blog I manage: it is designed to quickly help researchers find collaborators, so you could seek contacts & reading recommendations through Piirus. And just maybe, one day your fresh perspective and their expertise could lead to a really fruitful collaboration!