Evaluating an academic article

Learning: Quill pen on deep blue circle

Many people look to academic articles to learn things about historical practices of Pagan or polytheistic or pre-Christian cultures. However, sometimes people try to make academic articles do things they’re not designed for, or don’t know how to evaluate an article in the context of its field. This essay is an overview of some things to consider.

About academic articles (two key things)

1) The process for writing an academic article is focused on the needs of other academics (and their related institutions), not a general reader interested in the field or topic. Keeping this in mind will help you get the most out of articles.

2) While there are many great resources out there, there are also vanity publishers, scam publishers, and scam journals out there. Some of them look very similar to legitimate publishers and publications.

I’ve seen something like six separate exposures of these in the last year or so. This is something it can be tricky to figure out from outside the field, and it’s one of the reasons that relying on Google Scholar or Academia.edu for peer-reviewed work can be problematic. The databases like EBSCO or JSTOR or Gale are generally a bit better because their business model depends on them being seen as a reliable gatekeeper for journals.

About evaluation:

Evaluating an academic article is basically like evaluating other things, but with a bit more context.

First, it’s a lot easier the more you know about a general field and who the major names are in it. (This takes time and effort to learn: a casual reader isn’t going to have it. Someone who’s interested in a specific topic that crosses half a dozen fields probably won’t have it. Librarians probably don’t unless they’re a specialist in that field. Academics actually working in that field ought to.)

Second, you want to remember the basics of evaluation of any article. You can get one summary at my critical reading and Pagan books (many of the aspects apply just as much to academic articles). The University of Minnesota also has a number of interactive tutorials on different aspects of research that might be a great help if you need a refresher or information about a specific field.

Since you probably don’t have information about the field in detail you can do some or all of the following:

Specific guidelines for articles about religion

1) Keep material in context

Remember that a given topic being covered is limited by the number of people in that field, who are interested in the topic, who had time and resources to do the research in that topic, who found or developed material they could write about, and who was able to write something that was accepted and published by a journal you can get access to.

There may be no articles on a topic of particular interest to you (or in a language or format you can access). There may be no strong evidence of a particular practice or idea that is appropriate for an academic article. There may be only hints of things you’re interested in. There may be an article that focuses on a particular practice and only glancingly refers to religious material. The author could be ignoring religious implications for some reason.

Don’t try and make an article into something it’s not: take it for what it is, in the context it was written.

2) Look at who else the article author cites.

Over time, you may get familiar with the best-known sources in the field. (Database access sometimes makes this easier, depending on the database provider.)

Take a look at the list of references in the article. Are they recent titles? Are they much older than the article you’re reading? If they’re all older sources, why? That’s often a sign that someone isn’t familiar with newer work in the field.

If the citations are all for very recent work, why? What are the underpinnings in the field of the arguments the author is making? An article with entirely recent sources (last 5 years or so) might be a new line of investigation or a topic no one paid attention to before, but it might also indicate someone who is ignoring important foundational work in the field.

3) Look at other things the author has written.

Many academics maintain at least minimal websites with a list of their publications, which can mean you go “Oh, I want to read X too!” but also so you can get a sense of where a particular article fits with their other work. Getting a sense of whether this is a topic they’re exploring more, a side interest, or a total departure from their previous work can help you evaluate the article in front of you.

If someone is writing outside the field they have training and experience in, they might be coming up with some interesting new ideas, but there’s also a pretty good chance they’re missing some important things too. (Sometimes, authors will make it clear how they got from A to Q. That’s very helpful.)

4) Where is this person in their career?

Learning to read academic titles or cross-check them against the specifics for where they’re working (different places use the terms ‘assistant professor’ and ‘associate professor’ somewhat differently, for example.) This can help you determine if this is something someone wrote when they were working on tenure, after they got tenure, early in their career, late in their career, etc.

5) Look at the actual material they’re citing if you can.

Even if you can’t get access to all of it, looking at some of it in a close reading will give you an idea how the article author is dealing with it. Do they just quote the parts that agree with them? Do they acknowledge parts that challenge their argument?

6)  Remember you’re missing things if it’s not your field.

You probably don’t know which are the most reputable journals. You don’t know the major people writing in the field. You don’t know their particular preferences or biases. Their work is still useful, still interesting – but everyone has biases, and you need to factor in that they’re in play, even if the details aren’t available to you.

7) How does this work fit with other academic writing?

Does this work match up with standards and common practices for other academic works of similar type? If it doesn’t, why not? How is it different?

Is the writing quality fairly good? Or are there lots of typos, poorly phrased sections, or parts that make no sense? Some fields tend to produce certain styles of writing (some of which are more dense than others), but very poor quality overall is often an indication that something is odd and should be investigated.

Some final thoughts:

Finally, remember that the goals of the writer of an academic article may not be – and probably aren’t – the goals of a religious practitioner. Neither goal is wrong, but they’re sometimes mutually contradictory, or lived experience differs with what one academic gets out of a particular source.

Learning how to hold competing views in your head, how to filter for the author’s bias and goals, is an incredibly useful skill that will serve you well in lots of areas of your life.

Yes, all these things take effort. But if you want to do good research, rather than just toss around the external show of appearing to do research, that effort is rather necessary

Last edited December 25, 2016

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