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Other assessments: Journal critique

Critique article top

“It usually comes as a surprise to students to learn that some (the purists would say up to 99% of) published articles belong in the bin, and should certainly not be used to inform practice.

Trisha Greenhalgh, How to Read a Paper: The Basics of Evidence-Based Medicine

When asked to write a critique of a journal article for an an assignment your job is to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of that article and decide if it achieved what it set out to do.


What is a journal critique assignment?

A journal critique assignment is a piece of writing in which you assess the effectiveness of a journal article in achieving its stated aims and evaluate its value as a reliable resource. You will most commonly be asked to critique a piece of primary (empirical) research though critiquing theoretical papers or literature reviews is also possible.

Sometimes you will be asked to undertake a comparative review where you critique more than one article and compare them.


Choosing an article to critique

You may be provided with an article to critique or you may be asked to find articles that meet certain criteria. For example you may be asked to find a piece of primary research on a certain topic or you may be asked to find a piece of quantitative research and a piece of qualitative research on a certain topic so that you can evaluate the approaches used.

Recognising primary research

icon of magnifying glass look at the world

Primary research (sometimes called empirical research) is research where the author has collected the data directly themselves. This could be through experimentation, surveys, observations or other means. To identify a piece of primary research look out for sections such as "Methods" or "Methodology" which show how the data have been collected. Be careful about systematic reviews though - see the note below.

Recognising secondary research

icon of a magnifying glass looking at a document

Secondary research is that which uses the findings of others as its data. A literature review is the most obvious type but it could also include other forms of theoretical paper. They are usually identified by their lack of a methods/methodology section. However, see note about systematic reviews below.

Note about systematic reviews

Systematic reviews are the exception to the rules above as they are a form of secondary research which does include a methodology section. Luckily, they are usually easy to spot as they are keen to make it clear what they are and usually include something like 'a systematic review' in the title of the paper (or mention the fact in the abstract at the very least).

Recognising quantitative research

tables and charts icon

Quantitative research usually involves statistical analysis to identify whether the data collected is statistically significant. There will usually be tables or graphs showing the data in numerical format and an indication of which statistical tests have been used to analyse them. Generally, if you see lots of numbers, it's probably quantitative.

Recognising qualitative research

people and speech icon

Qualitative research explores and understand people's beliefs, experiences, behaviour, attitudes and interactions. It generates non-numerical data and so can be recognised by a lack of statistical analysis. It can also be helpful to look out for the data collection techniques which are commonly focus groups, interviews, observations and documentary analysis (many other forms too but these are the most popular).


How to critique

First, it is important to recognise that a critique is not just about finding things wrong with a paper. It is about evaluating it as a piece of research: good, bad or indifferent. Evaluation means coming to a judgment about and assessing something's worth. You are therefore looking to see if the claims it makes appear to be valid and if the conclusions make a useful contribution to the field. This involves asking questions of each part of the article. The following tables are adapted from Coughlan et al. (2007) and Ryan et al. (2007) and show typical questions you need to ask and how to find out the answer (this could be further, more specific questions to ask).

Assessing credibility (should you trust it?)

Author(s) Do their qualifications or position indicate they should be knowledgeable in this particular field?

Some information may be given at the beginning or end of the article. If not, go online and find the issue of the journal your article is from – some journals have a separate section with notes on their contributors. If all else fails, google them - most published scholars have a page at their institution with details of their research areas and publications.

Impact

Has it been cited by other authors?

Several journal databases give this information. If not, Google Scholar can give an indication (it is not quite as accurate but still useful). Bear in mind older articles will have more citations and some poor articles are cited a lot if other scholars want to criticise them. Check a few out to make sure this isn’t the case.

Writing style

Is the report well written?

Is it grammatically correct? Does it avoid jargon? Is specialist terminology clearly defined? Is it concise? If the author is clearly not a native English speaker, some leeway can be given with grammar but it should be perfectly readable nevertheless.

Title

Is it clear, accurate and unambiguous?

Scan the abstract – is it what you would have expected given the title?

Abstract

Does it offer a clear overview of the study?

It should state the research problem, what the study aimed to do, the methodology (including sample information), the findings and conclusions/recommendations. Are all these present?

Overall structure  Is it structured to make it easy to follow? Does the research report follow the steps of the research process in a logical manner? Do these steps naturally flow and are the links clear?

Assessing robustness (is it good research?)

Research purpose Is the purpose of the study/research problem clearly identified? This should be stated in the abstract and introduction of the paper.
Literature review Is it comprehensive and logically organised? You may need to do your own scoping of the literature on the topic to be able to assess the quality of the one in the article. A good literature search and then reading abstracts should be enough for this - see our guide on Planning a Search Strategy for help if you need it. Are all the obvious papers included? Is the review up-to-date? (This is especially important for scientific papers.). Is the review a reasonable summary with enough critique? Does the review show how the paper fits in with the rest of the literature? Does it show why the research is needed?
Purpose, aims, objectives, hypotheses, research questions Are they present and clear?

Quantitative: Have aims and objectives, research questions or hypotheses been stated?

Qualitative: Has the purpose of the study or research questions been identified?

Methodology: sample Were the right people sampled?

Quantitative: Is the target population identified? Are the selection criteria clear and appropriate? Is it of adequate size? 

Qualitative: Is the sampling method and sample size identified? Is the sampling method appropriate? Were the participants suitable for informing research?

Methodology: data collection Was the data collection method suitable?

Quantitative: Has the data gathering instrument been described? Is the instrument appropriate? How was it developed? Was there a pilot study? Is it replicable?

Qualitative: Are the data collection strategies described and justified? Was data saturation achieved? If interviewing or using focus groups, were pilots undertaken?

Methodology: data analysis How was the data analysed?

Quantitative: What type of data and statistical analysis was undertaken? Was it appropriate? How many of the sample participated? How was significance decided? Are the results shown in an easily understandable format (tables/charts etc)? Were the findings significant?

Qualitative: Are the strategies used to analyse the data described? Did the researcher follow the steps of the data analysis method identified? Were credibility, dependability, transferability or goodness discussed? 

Ethical issues Were all the ethical issues addressed? Were the participants fully informed about the nature of the research? Was the autonomy/ confidentiality of the participants guaranteed? Were the participants protected from harm? Was ethical permission granted for the study?
Findings/Discussion Was the research question answered? Are the findings presented appropriately? Are they linked back to the literature review and what is already known? Is there discussion of any variance with previous findings? If a hypothesis was identified was it supported? Were the strengths and limitations of the study including generalisability discussed? Has the original purpose of the study been adequately addressed?
Conclusions and recommendations Was practical or theoretical significance emphasised?

Are the importance and implications of the findings identified? Are recommendations made to suggest how the research findings can be developed? Do the results validate the conclusions/recommendations?

References Was the reference list complete? Were all the books, journals and other media alluded to in the study accurately referenced?

Coughlan, M., Cronin, P., & Ryan, F. (2007) Step-by-step guide to critiquing research. Part 1: quantitative research. British Journal of Nursing, 16(11), 658-663.

Ryan, F., Coughlan, M., & Cronin, P. (2007) Step-by-step guide to critiquing research. Part 2: qualitative research. British Journal of Nursing, 16(12), 738-744.


Coming to your own conclusions

You need to complete your review by providing a personal judgment on how effective the research was in achieving its aims and how well the article described the research.

You could include information on:

Is the research timely?

Is the research design appropriately inclusive and/or sensitive to the cultural context?

Are you aware of any omissions or errors that might affect the reliability of the research?

Are the results original and significant?

Does the author provide new ideas or cause new questions to be asked?

Is the article unbiased, objective (if required) and reasonable?

Is the author respectful of participants and other researchers?

Is the report structured well with sections an appropriate length?


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