Whenever you conduct research as a graduate student, you must evaluate the information you encounter to make sure it comes from reliable sources, whether those sources are online or in print.
Much has been written on the topic of evaluating online resources. You can get a good start on the topic by following the links below.
In general, Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source for anything other than popular culture items.
The first thing to check when looking for an article reporting on primary research is that your source is a scholarly journal and not a magazine.
Once you know that you have an article from a scholarly journal, the next thing to look for is whether or not all of the normal "parts" of a research article are present. While the parts are often easier to find in reports on quantitative research, they should be present in reports on qualitative research, as well. You need to look for:
According to the Structure of a Research Article from Northwest Missouri State University, research articles typically include the following:
If these sections are not present, you likely do not have an article reporting on research.
Even though an article is published in a journal, it is not necessarily a report on research. Journals also print other types of articles. What you may consider a "regular article" is probably a review of literature on a subject, along with the author's critique and suggestions. These are considered theoretical articles or commentary articles as opposed to reports on research.
Here is a tip for you: A research report article, while mainly describing the findings of a particular research study undertaken by the author(s), will begin with a review of the relevant literature in the area of the research. The reviews of literature found at the beginning of these articles are often good sources of additional articles. This is especially useful when you start by searching for the most recent articles on your topic and then work backwards. If you see the same article (or various articles by one author) cited in several other articles, it is a good indication that the older article is seminal. You can also see how many other articles have cited a given article in Google Scholar and several other article databases.
Research consumers need to evaluate research producers' interpretation of results carefully for unwarranted or overgeneralized conclusions. They need to examine four aspects of the research producers' conclusions: (a) predicted results (in the case of quantitative research), (b) unpredicted results, (c) statistical and practical significance, and (d) further research or replications of the studies (Hittleman & Simon, 2005, p. 202)
To critically evaluate the value of research, you need to understand how the researchers got from point A to point B.
There are many times in your life when you accept what you are told and feel that you may have little recourse for knowing whether what you are told is appropriate and accurate (i.e., doctors, lawyers, computer technicians, electricians, etc.). You may have a good relationship with your accountant and be able to trust what she tells you to do, despite the fact that you don't understand why. You may get a second opinion from a second electrician if the first electrician says your whole house needs re-wiring.
When you are reading research published in reputable journals, you have the assurance that it has been either peer reviewed or editorially reviewed. While this usually means there are no glaring errors, it doesn't automatically make it True with a capital "T," and it doesn't automatically make it applicable to your situation. You could get a "second opinion" by reading another report on the same topic, but what do you do if the two articles contradict each other? How do you decide who to believe or disbelieve?
Start by closely reading the review of previous research and theory relating to the problem. An article will never have the space to review all the related literature, but there should be references to some of the key studies and theories in the area. Is the research current? Does the review include contradictory studies or alternate theories to balance the review? Is language indicative of a strong bias toward a particular viewpoint ? (While this is not uncommon in qualitative studies based on critical theory or a standpoint theory, such studies directly address the researcher's point of view in a researcher perspective statement.)
Next, you can look at the methods used. Are they appropriate to the research question at hand? Does the author provide enough information to determine if the data were gathered in a reliable and ethical way? How were the participants selected? Were the data analyzed in a way that provided opportunities for triangulation and verification?
Finally, you can look at the discussion section. Are the author's conclusions really based in the results of the analysis? Are the implications appropriate, or are they overstated? Do the conclusions actually answer the research question? How do the conclusions support or refute previous research noted in the author's review of the literature? Does the author provide good suggestions for future research to expand upon this study?
The more you know about a particular area and the more you know about research methods in general, the easier this process will become.