Academic and scientific journals publish many different types of articles, and the names and categories they use to label and describe those documents are still more numerous. Scientific journals tend to focus on different kinds of articles than humanities journals do, and even when they publish similar kinds of articles, they often refer to them differently. This means that each basic type of scholarly article tends to have more than one name. What might be called a research article in one journal, for instance, might in another be labelled an empirical article, an original article, a full article or simply an article. A review article in one periodical could be referred to as a survey paper in the next, and the Brief Communications section in one journal might be entitled Micro-Articles in another.
To determine exactly what kinds of articles a particular journal publishes, a researcher must therefore learn as much as possible about the journal, usually via its website, and read at least a few of its recent issues. Generally speaking, however, the publication of original research articles is a central goal for most academic and scientific journals, so such articles will usually occupy a prominent place and a large portion of the space in a peer-reviewed journal. They are rarely alone, however, and many periodicals also aim to publish theoretical articles, descriptions of innovative methods, papers based on observation, current news in a field, reviews of various kinds, authoritative opinions on important issues, and a variety of educational material. Almost every one of the scholarly documents published by modern journals can be categorised within these eight categories.
1. Original Research Articles
The publication of original research articles is the primary reason why academic and scientific journals exist. Whatever name a journal might give it, a research article serves to provide a thorough report of the methods used to conduct original research, the results obtained through those methods, and the meaning and implications of those results. The design of such studies is usually analytic, with a defined research question, a hypothesis of some kind and a discussion of how the findings answer the question and prove or disprove the hypothesis. In the medical sciences, an experimental study such as a randomised controlled trial would provide material for an original research article, whereas in the social sciences survey and interview responses might take the place of experiments. Similar, too, is the research of an archaeologist who tests a hypothesis about the position of an ancient building by excavating the suggested place, and proves that hypothesis by finding relevant pieces of the structure. Accurate and detailed observation also plays a part here and tends to be essential to successful empirical research, but pure observational research (described in No.4 below) is somewhat different.
An original research article is an appropriate format for presenting many different kinds of study in a variety of fields, but the length, structure and editorial styles of research articles tend to vary considerably among journals. A scientific article will usually use what is called a basic IMRAD structure with sections dedicated to Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion, and other fields often adopt this standard empirical model within less formal or more complicated systems of organisation. If a university instructor insists that primary sources be used in a term paper or class assignment, original research articles will be appropriate, and if a doctoral student finishing up his or her thesis wants to publish key findings as a journal paper, an original research article is the right choice. Research articles are also highly desirable publications to include on a professional CV when applying for employment and research opportunities. Original research articles usually undergo thorough peer review by qualified experts to ensure quality, so the author must dedicate special care to scholarly excellence and clear communication, and also be prepared to make revisions in response to the critical comments of reviewers and editors before the article is accepted for publication.
Closely related to a review article is a meta-analysis, in which the results obtained through several original research studies are examined and combined. The aims include a broader research context, more conclusive results and more precise estimates and predictions for the field of study and its key areas of concern. Meta-analyses also provide assessments of the published research, however, highlighting similarities and differences and drawing conclusions about the scholarship itself as well as the phenomena it investigates, so in that way they share certain qualities with reviews (discussed in No.6 below). Meta-analyses are particularly useful in fields with enormous and quickly expanding bodies of research that present potentially confusing contradictions.
2. Theoretical Articles
Like research articles, theoretical articles are usually peer reviewed before they are published in academic and scientific journals, but they do not require or report empirical research of the kind presented in original research articles. This is not to say that their contents are not original, however, or are less valid or important than the contents of empirical research articles, and theoretical research can certainly draw evidence and support from empirical research. A theoretical article generally introduces and discusses abstract ideas and principles, either new or established, that are related to a specific field of study or body of knowledge, with a particular focus on ideas formulated to explain, predict and understand phenomena. Established theories are often introduced, described, analysed and compared as the author uses them to develop and present his or her own new theory about a problem, question, behaviour, situation, event or anything else worthy of reflection and discussion.
Although explanation and prediction are primary, the precise purposes of theoretical articles vary, so the goal may be a historical survey of theories significant to an area of specialisation or the historical development of one key theory within a much larger discipline. The application of theories to real-life situations, events and processes can be part of the point of publishing theoretical articles, and university instructors often ask students to apply (or imagine applying) the theories they discuss in their papers as a test of sorts to determine how well they understand the material taught in a course and its practical implications. Papers in philosophy, literature, psychology, anthropology and other social sciences are frequently theoretical in nature, but scientific articles can be as well – cosmology comes to mind, for instance, as a branch of scientific study that is highly theoretical in nature. The language, vocabulary and argumentation used in a theoretical article must usually be of a superior quality to earn publication.
3. Descriptions of Research Methodology
Although descriptions of research methodology are usually published in the Methods sections of original research articles, research methods can also be the central focus of a journal article. As a rule, the methods discussed must be completely new or a significant development of established methods. In either case, the methodology at the heart of a publishable article must represent an obvious advancement or improvement of established methods. The structure of a methodology article may be similar to that of an original research article, but it is the methodology itself that is objectively tested, discussed and shown to be of special value to the field of study. A formal methodology article of this kind will in most cases be peer reviewed by experienced researchers just as an original research article is.
There are, however, somewhat less formal ways in which to share innovative research methods with readers. Technical notes or technical innovations are published by some scholarly journals to enable researchers to describe in a short format a new technique or procedure, a specific modification of a technique already in use or an important new instrument or piece of equipment. The goal is usually to help other researchers avoid errors and improve their work, and the same can be the case with expert tips, brief communications, micro-articles, ‘How To’ papers and other kinds of educational material (see No.8 below). Reports of work in progress and study protocol articles are more thorough documents that tend to explain methodology in detail as well as justifying its applicability to the research underway or proposed. Large and long-term research projects are particularly likely to interest the journal editors who consider work-in-progress and study protocol articles, and although these articles may not undergo peer review, ethics approval is usually necessary prior to publication.
4. Reports and Studies of Observations
Academic and scientific articles based on observational research are published under a wide variety of names across many different scholarly disciplines. Case studies or case reports in which an individual, place, event or phenomenon is the subject of study are perhaps the best known, but other types commonly published by scholarly journals include articles dedicated to anthropological field notes, historical surveys and scientific descriptions of new species. One of the defining features of observational research is its naturalistic approach: instead of the researcher intervention and manipulated environment typical of empirical experimentation, observations are made in a real-life and theoretically unaltered environment. Participation levels of the researcher may vary, of course, and the presence of the observer in relation to the observed can itself constitute an intervention, but the ideal goal is to observe and describe reality and behaviours as they truly are.
Although observational articles are primarily descriptive in nature, answering questions, testing hypotheses, predicting on the basis of observations and other forms of analysis and interpretation are usually important aspects of the best papers. A case study might be used as the basis of wider generalisation, but often the unique nature of its subject is of particular value for its relationship of difference to what is considered normal and the ways in which it challenges current assumptions, sheds light on troubling problems and issues, and enables more informed predictions and actions. Comparison is frequently employed, as in a medical case-control study using patient and control groups to learn more about a particular disease, or in the close examination of the literary reception of a medieval poet in two different regions via comparative observations of the surviving manuscripts in those regions. Case studies can be extended over many subjects and years in, say, a case series or clinical review of all the patients sharing a diagnosis and associated with a particular medical clinic, or over a larger area in a study of the provenance and readership of all the surviving manuscripts of that medieval poet.
5. Notes and News
This category can include so many different types of articles that it is almost impossible to define or characterise it. The format is usually brief, often with strict limitations on the overall length of the manuscript and the number of references and figures an author is permitted to use. Virtually anything that the editor-in-chief of a journal believes will be of interest to the journal’s readers can be included, and some periodicals even have a specific section and editor dedicated to the publication of notes and news. Indeed, the entire contents of certain journals are so dedicated, resulting in journal titles such as Notes and Queries or Research Notes. The topics of these notes and news articles can be completely academic or scientific within the journal’s publishing scope, in which case they might be called micro-articles, technical notes, research reports, conference announcements or brief communications, to name only a few. Often such material is time sensitive and useful to other researchers, but might not be published quickly enough were the author to wait for the completion of a research project and the publication of a complete research article.
Alternatively, the content of these short articles may deviate somewhat from strictly scholarly material, but nonetheless be of special interest to a journal’s readers, so relevant celebrations and anniversaries, tributes to and obituaries of particularly notable scholars in the field, and letters and commentaries of a personal experiential as much as an academic or scientific nature might be included. Such material may not contribute significantly to the advancement of knowledge in a field, but it does inform and entertain readers while adding to the character and appeal of a journal. Considerable crossover exists with other types of papers such as methodology articles (described in No.3 above) and opinion-based papers (discussed in No.7 below), with each journal having its own ways of naming and categorising these contributions.
Traditionally speaking, academic and scientific journals have published two kinds of reviews: literature reviews, often called review articles, and book reviews, which are frequently referred to as reviews. Both serve to provide information about and in most cases some evaluation of published scholarship, but the focus of the two types is very different. The length and depth of book reviews varies among journals and reviewers, but such a review is usually brief and almost always discusses one recent publication, though two or three books published in the same year on the same topic are sometimes productively reviewed together. Readers are provided with a summary of the publication’s content and an assessment of its originality and value by a scholar who is an expert in the field of study. Publishers often send their new scholarly monographs to relevant journals in the hope of review, so book reviews tend to be solicited by journals either in a collective call or individually from specific specialists. Journals sometimes also publish an author’s response to a review of his or her book, particularly if the reviewer’s opinion was negative or some aspect of the topic is highly controversial. Such a response might be presented as a brief commentary on the book review itself or separately as a letter or note or even an addendum.
Literature reviews (also referred to as survey papers and overview articles) take a much wider perspective on the published scholarship in a field of study or narrower area of specialisation, including papers as well as monographs, so they can be much longer articles. The focus and level of analysis varies widely, so a literary journal dedicated to the writing of a single author might publish a list of all the scholarship on the author that happened to be published in the previous year. That list might be descriptive, providing a brief summary of each publication, and it may also be evaluative, offering an assessment of the research as well as a summary. Many review articles extend over far more than a year’s publication, however, and then the goal tends to be a survey and evaluation of the history and development of scholarship on a topic or in a field of study. Major themes, theories, problems, debates, directions, trends and gaps in current knowledge might be highlighted and discussed, depending on the views and aims of the review article’s author. Longer review articles might include everything relevant that has been published on a subject, while shorter articles might be more selective in focussing only on publications of particular value, just as the literature review in a scholarly book or research article would do. Because review articles tend to summarise the current state of understanding in an area, they can be especially helpful tools for those just beginning active research, and they are not only read but also cited with great frequency.
Although some journals will consider unsolicited submissions of reviews, editors often invite noted experts in a field to write them (hence they are sometimes called invited reviews). In this way they are like peer reviews, but peer reviews generally take place before publication to assess and improve an article’s quality, whereas the reviews discussed above are written about scholarship after it has been published without the intention of altering those publications. Traditionally speaking, peer reviews are not published; however, recent developments in peer review practices at certain journals are changing this with post-publication peer review. In this scenario, an article is published online, reviewers are invited in a general call or via specific requests, and the resulting reviews are then published online beside the article, which the author has the duty or right to revise in accordance with the review feedback. In most cases the author has the right to respond to the criticism with explanation and defence of the work as well, which ultimately become part of the published dialogue too.
7. Authoritative Opinions
Expert opinion also plays a central role in academic and scientific articles designed for the primary purpose of expressing and sharing informed and authoritative perspectives on topics of interest to the journal’s editors and readers. Some reviews and critical responses might be placed in this category had they not one of their own, and when a letter to the editor or an editorial by the editor comments specifically on publications or the journal’s reviews of them, the line between review and opinion certainly becomes blurred. Opinion papers can share critical thoughts on far more than the published scholarship, however, and deal in depth and detail with almost any concept, problem, procedure, theme, trend or event within a journal’s scope.
Opinion-based articles might be short and somewhat informal, so a brief commentary may present an expert’s perspective on a controversial issue or the author’s personal experience of a specific topic, occurrence, policy or practice. The commentary can accompany an original research paper or other article by the same author, or it may stand on its own and dedicate a great deal of space to introducing the opinions and perspectives of others. In a formal academic position article of the kind common in law, politics and other fields, an arguable opinion about an issue is presented, often through the use of different conflicting opinions, and the author works to convince readers that his or her opinion is valid and even preferable. Emerging scholarly topics are often discussed in a carefully crafted and persuasively argued position article long before active experimentation and other forms of original research are conducted. Large corporations and political bodies also make good use of position papers to present beliefs, share viewpoints and change values.
8. Educational Material
Although most of the articles published in scholarly journals can be considered educational for readers, there are certain documents published by academic and scientific journals that are specifically dedicated to teaching rather than sharing knowledge. This is to say that the knowledge they contain teaches readers how to share their own knowledge and expertise with learners or specifically adopts an instructional mode to teach readers how to do something (usually something new) rather than simply telling them how it was done. The distinction is a fine one and certainly an excellent description of methodology in an original research paper should explain procedures accurately and precisely enough that the research can be replicated, but it nonetheless remains different from a ‘How To’ article that explains step-by-step exactly how to implement those methods.
Journals dedicated to education will obviously publish articles presenting empirical, theoretical and observational research on educational topics, but they and other journals may also include instructional innovations, ‘How To’ articles, lists of expert tips, technical notes describing processes and procedures, and pictorial essays that consist of very little text but several or even many high-quality, clearly labelled images and info-graphics to present complex or important instructional material in clear and memorable formats. The more specialised top-tier academic and scientific journals may not publish this sort of practical educational material often or at all, but even in such venues it can sometimes be found in the more informal parts of a journal.
Summary: Although the many different names and categories used to describe the types of articles published by academic and scientific journals can be confusing, there are essentially eight kinds of scholarly articles and shorter papers found in peer-reviewed journals.