When professors assign term papers or similar research projects, they typically require their students to document their work by citing scholarly articles from reputable publications. Although researchers can set article databases to limit results to peer-reviewed, scholarly material, they still need to know how to identify scholarly articles for themselves without depending on these limits. One reason is that the limits do not always function effectively. Another is that a reader may not be accessing an article via an article database.
What constitutes a scholarly article? One easy-to-spot feature is that it will provide footnotes, endnotes, or in-text citations to indicate precisely where statements or ideas not original to the author originated. This is perhaps the most important criterion of all. Usually, but not always, a scholarly article will also have a bibliography that lists all of the relevant sources the author noted and consulted.
Another important feature which professors often insist upon is that it come from a peer-reviewed journal. Peer review indicates that the articles in the journal have been evaluated and accepted by the authors' peers in the journal's field of study.
There are several methods of peer review. One involves an editorial board. A scholarly journal's editorial board is typically comprised of experts in the journal's field of study. When an author submits an article for possible publication, members of that board will evaluate it. They will not know who the author is. Although the author may know who is on the board if the journal has publicized that information, they will not know which members evaluated their submission. The reviewers will then make recommendations to accept the article as is, reject it, or accept it subject to revision.
Another method is called single-blind peer review. A journal using it sends an article for review to outside experts in the field in question. The experts know who the author is, but the author does not know who the reviewers are. The reviewers will then make recommendations.
Another method is called double-blind peer review. A journal using it sends an article to outside experts for review. The experts do not know who the author is, and the author does not know who the reviewers are.
Whichever method is used, once a peer-reviewed article is published, the reader can be reasonably sure that it has met professional standards of quality control. Of course this does not mean that excellent scholarly articles are only found in peer-reviewed journals. However, the peer-review process weeds out much poor-quality material.