What is a good source?
Select and evaluate literature
If you start to inform yourself about a research topic, you might start with surfing the web and having a look at Wikipedia or other online sources. Most of the sources are written by people who have a clue about the topic or consider themselves to be an expert (e.g. Wikipedia). It is totally okay to take this as a first step, but these sources do not necessarily fulfill the criteria of reliability and replicability which characterize good academic research. This means, you need to search for sources that satisfy academic standards.
Which sources should I use?
Using good scientific sources is key for academic work. Do not cite Wikipedia or web-pages in your seminar papers (unless your research is about Wikipedia or web-pages). Instead:
➔ Use peer-reviewed articles: Research literature consists of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications. Peer-reviewed means that a publications went through a lengthy review process before publication. Peer-reviewed articles look like the articles you may have read in seminars. Wikipedia, Websites, Youtube, or common books are usually not peer-reviewed (except for books containing collections of scientific articles). So, how do you find peer-reviewed articles? If you search in Google Scholar, you will get both peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed results. If you use IsiWebOfKnowledge, PsychInfo, or Psyndex, you will find mostly peer-reviewed articles.
➔ Use psychology journals: There is a rule of thumb that says if a journal has the word ‘psychology’ in the title, it’s a psychology journal. Below you will find a PDF with a selection of journals, sorted roughly by importance (top journals are bigger journals), that you may wish to download. A full, more-or-less accurate, list of psychology journals can be found at Wikipedia.
I found many articles on my topic, which ones should I use?
Rule A: Use well-cited work.
Work that is cited more often is more important. Citations are a good indicator for important research, since other researchers also mention this work (caution: sometimes they mention it because it is wrong!). But, an article from 1990 will be more-cited than an article from 2016 simply because it is older. So, check citations per year. More is better, and more than 20 citations per year are good. But, be careful with looking only at citation counts as sometimes there is a tendency of citations among peers.
Rule B: Use important (psychology) journals.
Among psychological journals there are some small and some really important journals. Journals are ranked by an impact factor (IF), which counts the number of citation of the average article published in the journal. The famous journals Science or Nature have IFs above 30. In psychology a 5-year IF that is bigger than 2 is rather good. But be aware, the IF is far from perfect. For a critical discussion read this article.
Rule C: Clarity as a soft-quality criterion.
Good articles should be written in a clear and precise way. The authors must argue with clarity within the whole paper. If they are not good in highlighting the structure of their argument and each necessary building block, they might have trouble to bring their clear thoughts across to the reader and their thought process is not finished yet. Thus, a clearly written and precise paper is also an useful indicator for a good source. (But be careful: if a paper is clearly written and understandable, this does not imply that you can read it on the fly, you might need to spend some time thinking about it yourself.)
How to judge non-peer-reviewed publications like books?
The quality of non-peer-reviewed publications is harder to judge and requires more self-responsibility. Handle them with more care. Not-yet published manuscripts that are under review can be available as so-called working papers; they might mark the research frontier and thus might be worth reading. Books are usually not peer-reviewed, but if they are from a good publisher or the authors are well-known and established researchers, they can be high in their quality, too. Often, books provide summaries of previously peer-reviewed work.
How can I use psychological search engines?
There are several web-based search engines for your literature research, like Google Scholar and Web of Science that you can use. There are also special psychological search engines, like Psyndex, or PsychInfo that will give you search results which are usually only from psychological sources (unlike Google Scholar, for instance). You can also specify the topic to ‘psychology’ in Web of Science. In the following video step, we take a closer look at Google Scholar.
University of Basel