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Melissa Vetter, Subject Librarian

Biology, Psychological & Brain Sciences and Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology Subject Librarian (Olin Library)

What are these numbers on the book spine?

You might be familiar with the Dewey Decimal Classification from grade school or the public library.  At WUSTL, and at many academic libraries in the United States, we use an organization system developed by the Library of Congress.  This system works to organize materials by subject. 

Tip: 

  • Since we organize materials by subject, browsing becomes extremely easy.  Once you find a book that looks relevant to your research idea, it is a good idea to browse the nearby books on the shelf, as they will be highly related.

For more information on this organization schema, please see the Library of Congress Classification Outline

Here is a hypothetical shelf of books with the call numbers explained:

Tips for evaluating books

You need to evaluate the information you are finding. It is an essential part of the research process! Consider these five criteria:

Authority: Who wrote the book? What are the author’s credentials? Who is the publisher? If the publisher is an academic press, this generally means a scholarly resource. Although the fact that the publisher is reputable does not necessarily guarantee quality, it does show that the publisher may have high regard for the source being published.

Tip: You can find this information on the title page of the book.

Audience: Who is the book written for? A specialized audience? Or a more general one? Is the focus appropriate for your topic?

Tip: You can sometimes locate this information in the preface of the book.

Accuracy: Does the information appear to be well-researched or is it unsupported? Is the book free of errors?

Tip: See if the author is footnoting information and providing a bibliography of sources consulted.

Objectivity: Does the book appear biased or is the authors viewpoint impartial? Is the author trying to influence the opinion of the reader?

Tip: Is the author’s viewpoint very different than others in the field? In that case you will want to examine the data and supporting evidence closely.

Currency: When was the book published? Is it current or out of date for your topic? In general, areas in the humanities don’t need up-to-the minute research while areas in the sciences do. Has the book been revised or is this a new edition?

Tip: This information is located on the back of the title page.

Tips for evaluating articles

How to recognize peer-reviewed (refereed) journals

In many cases professors will require that students utilize articles from “peer-reviewed” journals. Sometimes the phrases “refereed journals” or “scholarly journals” are used to describe the same type of journals. But what are peer-reviewed (or refereed or scholarly) journal articles, and why do faculty require their use?

Three categories of information resources:

  • Newspapers and magazines containing news - Articles are written by reporters who may or may not be experts in the field of the article. Consequently, articles may contain incorrect information.
  • Journals containing articles written by academics and/or professionals — Although the articles are written by “experts,” any particular “expert” may have some ideas that are really “out there!”
  • Peer-reviewed (refereed or scholarly) journals - Articles are written by experts and are reviewed by several other experts in the field before the article is published in the journal in order to insure the article’s quality. (The article is more likely to be scientifically valid, reach reasonable conclusions, etc.) In most cases the reviewers do not know who the author of the article is, so that the article succeeds or fails on its own merit, not the reputation of the expert.

Helpful hint!

Not all information in a peer-reviewed journal is actually refereed, or reviewed. For example, editorials, letters to the editor, book reviews, and other types of information don’t count as articles, and may not be accepted by your professor.

How do you determine whether an article qualifies as being a peer-reviewed journal article?

First, you need to be able to identify which journals are peer-reviewed. There are generally four methods for doing this

  1. Limiting a database search to peer-reviewed journals only. Some databases allow you to limit searches for articles to peer reviewed journals only. For example, Academic Search Complete has this feature on the initial search screen - click on the pertinent box to limit the search. In some databases you may have to go to an “advanced” or “expert” search screen to do this. Remember, many databases do not allow you to limit your search in this way.
  2. Checking in the database Ulrichsweb.com to determine if the journal is indicated as being peer-reviewed. If you cannot limit your initial search to peer-reviewed journals, you will need to check to see if the source of an article is a peer-reviewed journal. This can be done by searching the database Ulrichsweb.com. It helps to type in the exact title of the source journal including any initial A, AN, or THE in the title. If you don’t find the journal you are interested in, you may want to utilize Method 3 below. If your journal title IS displayed, check to see if the journal is indicated as being refereed by having the symbol  [Peer-reviewed]  next to the title.
  3. Examining the publication to see if it is peer-reviewed. If by using the first two methods you were unable to identify if a journal (and an article therein) is peer-reviewed, you may then need to examine the journal physically or look at additional pages of the journal online to determine if it is peer-reviewed. This method is not always successful with resources available only online. The following steps are suggested:
  • Locate the journal in the Library or online, then identify the most current entire year’s issues.
  • Locate the masthead of the publication. This oftentimes consists of a box towards either the front or the end of the periodical, and contains publication information such as the editors of the journal, the publisher, the place of publication, the subscription cost and similar information.
  • Does the journal say that it is peer-reviewed? If so, you’re done! If not, move on to the next step.
  • Check in and around the masthead to locate the method for submitting articles to the publication.  If you find information similar to “to submit articles, send three copies…”, the journal is probably peer-reviewed. In this case, you are inferring that the publication is then going to send the multiple copies of the article to the journal’s reviewers. This may not always be the case, so relying upon this criterion alone may prove inaccurate.
  • If you do not see this type of statement in the first issue of the journal that you look at, examine the remaining journals to see if this information is included. Sometimes publications will include this information in only a single issue a year.
  • Is it scholarly, using technical terminology? Does the article format approximate the following - abstract, literature review, methodology, results, conclusion, and references? Are the articles written by scholarly researchers in the field that the periodical pertains to? Is advertising non-existent, or kept to a minimum? Are there references listed in footnotes or bibliographies? If you answered yes to all these questions , the journal may very well be peer-reviewed. This determination would be strengthened by having met the previous criterion of a multiple-copies submission requirement. If you answered these questions no, the journal is probably not peer-reviewed.

4. Find the official web site on the internet, and check to see if it states that the journal is peer-reviewed. Be careful to use the official site (often located at the journal publisher’s web site), and, even then, information could potentially be “inaccurate.”

Helpful hint!

If you have used the previous four methods in trying to determine if an article is from a peer-reviewed journal and are still unsure, speak to your instructor.