What is a Peer Reviewed Article?

I have a paper due tomorrow and my professor wants us to use peer reviewed sources! Ack! I don’t know what that means? Relax. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath is going to explain the peer review process and give you tips on locating peer reviewed sources. 

Once upon a time, I was an undergraduate. I don’t recall writing any research papers as a freshman, but had friends who did. I distinctly remember a panicked friend who had been asked to write such a paper. The students were told they needed to use “peer-reviewed” references. He had no idea what that meant. I had no idea what that meant or where one might go to find such a thing. In hindsight, asking the professor or going to the library and asking a librarian are obvious people to ask for clarification (this was the era before we googled everything).

Faculty forget that most students do not come to college knowing what peer review means. We request students to use peer-reviewed references, but give little indication of what this actually means or where one finds them.

What does peer review mean?

The peer review process is in place to help ensure the credibility of an article. So, let’s walk through an example. I conduct a research project. Part of my job and the scientific process is that I share these results. The gold standard for sharing these results is in a peer-reviewed publication. I write up my results in a format deemed suitable for my desired journal. I submit my manuscript and I wait. The editor of the journal sends my manuscript to two or three experts in the field. These are experts on the topic in my manuscript. They are well-suited to vet my manuscript because they know the topic intimately. They should be able to make the determination if I am making a unique and worthwhile contribution to the field because they know nearly everything there is to know about the field.

Very rarely does a manuscript get published after one round of reviews. What is more likely, is one of two scenarios:

  1. The manuscript is rejected. In this scenario, the journal will not publish this piece. I receive feedback from the reviewers and the editor. I can revise this article and submit it to another journal. An outright rejection does not mean your research is not worth publishing (though it could). A rejection means your manuscript is not ready to be published or it is not the right fit for the journal. A rejection means it is time to revise and find a better home for your manuscript.
  2. The editor gives your manuscript a revise and resubmit. This means the journal is open to publishing your piece provided that you make requested revisions (or offer suitable explanation as to why changes were not made). You submit your manuscript to the journal again and it undergoes the review process again. At this point, the journal is still under no obligation to accept your manuscript. The reviewers and editor could choose to reject your manuscript, give you another opportunity to revise and resubmit, or accept your article.

Now, that we have a bit more knowledge of what the peer review process looks like, how do you (the student) find a peer reviewed article?

Go to your college library’s website. Find a database. More than likely, your library has a subscription to EBSCOhost or Proquest. Choose a topic that you want to learn more about from your sociology course. Put that topic in the search box. Now, before you click search, check off the box next to where it says “peer review” or “scholarly journal.” Both databases have this option. This makes it very easy when you are just starting out to locate a peer reviewed article. You may have to refine your search a bit more after your initial search. For example, in Proquest, you can sort your “peer reviewed” results to include only those from “scholarly journals.” Do this.

Eventually, you will learn to identify a scholarly journal without the help of the checkbox in the databases.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe in your own words the peer review process?
  2. Why is peer review important? When something is peer reviewed, why is it more trustworthy than say a newspaper story?
  3. Use one of your library’s databases to find an article from a peer-reviewed journal. Prepare a citation of this article in ASA format.
  4. Go to your favorite search engine. Search for the same topic you used in question 3. Find an article on your topic. Explain why your article is or is not a peer-reviewed article using this checklist.