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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Introduction to English Language Literature: Start Research

Peer Review

"Peer review" is a key term to know when looking for scholarly sources: If a journal is "Peer reviewed," that means the articles published in that journal were reviewed by an anonymous panel of other scholars, and the panel objectively verified the high level of scholarship in the article.

Peer-reviewed journals are an excellent source for scholarly research articles. If you'd like to learn more, please see our Peer Review guide, which explains why peer review is important and where you can find peer-reviewed articles.

Learn to Search for Scholarly Content in Databases, Catalogs, and E-Resources

The first step to an effective database search is identifying keywords relevant to your topic. How do you find keywords?  First, take a look at your chosen topic or thesis statement. Pick out the keywords and their synonyms that are central to your topic. 

For example, the topic "The confluence of women and religion in the novels of James Baldwin" has the keywords of:

- women/gender/femininity

- James Baldwin

- religion/Christianity/African-American church

With these keywords, you can begin searching databases such as MLA Bibliography, Literature Resource Center, and ABELL for research articles (or secondary sources) to support your topic.

BOOLEAN Searching

When you search a database, you may see multiple text boxes, like in this search screen from MLA Bibliography:

This type of search is called BOOLEAN searching: it simply involves combining two or more terms together with the conjunctions AND, OR, NOT.  Using BOOLEAN searching is a simple but powerful way to find specific materials related to your topic.  Each conjunction can expand or narrow your search. Here's an example with a group of shapes:

What happens when we use Boolean searching with these shapes?

AND: When you search with "AND," the results must match all of the search terms. So if we search for "square" AND "yellow", the result is one matching item:

OR: When you search with "OR," the results must only match at least 1 of the search terms.  So if we search for "square" OR "yellow," the result is multiple matches:

NOT: When you search with "NOT," the results must match the first term(s) but not the second.  So if we search for "square" NOT "yellow", the result is two matching items:

As these examples show, Boolean searching can give you focused and varied results that help you sift through lots of material.

What Is a Scholarly Source?

Scholarly sources contain well-sourced, original research and meet the established standards of their discipline. Generally, these sources:

  • do not duplicate work that has already been done by other scholars
  • present a worthwhile approach to the topic
  • exist as part of a standing conversation on the topic, as represented by its citations to other scholarship
  • meet the above and other standards of the discipline, as generally agreed upon by scholars of the discipline

There are several basic characteristics that can help you determine if a resource you've found is a scholarly source, and this guide lists several criteria that can help you start identifying scholarly sources.

Searching Google

Google returns results on the basis of popularity. While popular beliefs are sometimes correct, we can all think of many instances when they are not correct. Since the internet includes misinformation, one cannot be certain that results returned from Google are absolutely reliable.

Google is fine for our everyday use. But scholars make arguments that often challenge presupposed facts, and need extremely reliable sources to strengthen their arguments.

Academic articles often will not to appear on websites searched by Google. Google Scholar (a *different* search engine) will find some articles, but it's best to talk with your professor or your subject specialist librarian about what sources to use. 

Ultimately, it is best to use books, journal articles, reports, and other information sources (print and electronic) that are written and published by verified experts in the "peer review system." 

Searching Wikipedia

Wikipedia makes certain efforts at reliability that search engines like Google do not, including its own system of peer-review.  Still, Wikipedia has different priorities than an academic peer-reviewed resource and shouldn't be used in place of an academic source. 

Wikipedia's design trades absolute reliability for convenience and quick updating.  You can never be certain that what you read on Wikipedia doesn't include misinformation that has yet to be corrected.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.  Encyclopedias are general information sources best used for gaining a quick overview of a topic and finding a list of resources and topics to guide you in further exploration.  

For more information, see these Wikipedia entries on the Academic use of Wikipedia and the Reliability of Wikipedia. Instead of relying on Wikipedia, please consult the many quality reference sources provided in this LibGuide.