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Scholarly sources, such as books and journal articles, are written by experts in a particular field and serve to keep others interested in that field up to date on the most recent research, findings and news.
Many scholarly articles and books undergo a process called peer review, but not all do (see more information about this below).
Why should you use scholarly sources? Scholarly sources' authority and credibility can improve the quality of your own paper or research project. You may also be required by your professor to have a certain number of scholarly sources as part of a project.
If you think you've found a scholarly source through a web search, you need to determine if it is scholarly. Even if you find a source in a library database, you may not be looking at a scholarly article or book, as some databases contain many types of publications. Use the chart below to help you distinguish between scholarly and popular sources.
|Advertisements||Few, usually for publications||Numerous, color|
|Appearance||Black and white, plain, charts, graphs||Color, slick, glossy, illustrations, photographs|
|Audience||Professors, researchers||General public|
|Author||Scholar, academic, expert||Journalists|
|Editing||Peer review||Magazine editors|
|Language||Specialized vocabulary||Simple, accessible|
|Publisher||University press, research institutes, scholarly press, professional organizations||Commercial, for-profit|
|Purpose/Intent||Original research, methodology, theory||Entertain, inform, sell, promote|
|Documentation||Footnotes, bibliographies, works cited||Sources rarely cited|
It's not always easy to tell if a source is scholarly! There are lots of gray areas. Below is a list of common things that you might not be too sure about when it comes to determining if a source is scholarly or not. If you click any of the list items, they'll expand to give you some more context.
The list is also color-coded!
|Blue means your source is very likely scholarly!||Purple means it could go either way, but your source is probably scholarly||Orange means it could go either way, but your source is probably not scholarly||Red means your source is very likely not scholarly||Green means your source is a real wild card and whether it's scholarly or not will depend on your answers to other questions in this list|
How do I know? If you're using a database to find articles, most of those will identify a journal as peer-reviewed or not.
You can also google the journal. Most of them are very eager for people to know they're peer-reviewed, so that info should come right up. If it's not immediately obvious, look at the journal's website on pages like "about," "author guidelines," "submission guidelines," or similar.
Remember, if your source is peer-reviewed, it's scholarly!
How do I know? Locate the name of the publisher first.
For a journal article, you'd usually just want to see if the journal is peer-reviewed, as in the advice above.
For a book, the publisher is usually located on the front or back cover, as well as within the first few pages, sometimes in large print but always in the copyright info. If a book is published by a university press, it's nearly always been peer-reviewed too.
How do I know? Read the article, or preferably the abstract (summary) if there is one. Does it mention a study or other investigation? Is there anything about a new contribution to an ongoing problem or issue? Can you tell if the author collected any data (whether qualitative, like survey answers, or quantitative, like just hard numbers)?
How do I know? If you scan the article, you can usually identify a section that details any methodology they used. Sometimes it's outright labeled, but sometimes you might just have to look for a section of the article in which they talk about how they conducted or approached their research.
How do I know? Scan the article. Sometimes there will be a section labeled "Literature Review," "Background," or similar, or you may just have to assume that they did one because there's a lot of other people's research listed in the references list at the end. If there's no reference list, you probably don't have a scholarly source.
Basically, a literature review is where the author gathers and analyzes all the literature they can find on the topic they want to write about, in order to make sure they've got enough foundational knowledge about that topic as well as to know what has or hasn't been written about that topic before. Generally, scholars want to write about a topic from a perspective that hasn't been explored before, so doing this review often helps them to decide if it's worth writing about.
How do I know? Scholars and researchers often list their publications categorically on a professional website or CV (“Curriculum Vitae”). You can sometimes—but not always—find CVs online. Google the author's name. If they don't come up, you can try googling their title along with their name (usually something vague will do it, like "Jane Doe professor Fairfield U").
Did you know? The number of scholarly publications an academic has on their record can matter when it comes to tenure and promotion. Tenure is sought by professors because it makes their position at a college or university indefinite—meaning that they can't be fired except under extraordinary circumstances. That makes it easier for you to determine if their work is scholarly because they're going to be extra sure to provide that information anywhere they can.
How do I know? Look for places in the text that link the author(s) with an academic or research institution (like in the example here). You might see institutions listed beneath the author’s name or bios at the end of the text.
Be aware: Not everything a scholar, researcher, expert, or academic publishes is "scholarship." When determining if something is scholarly, it's not just the author that matters, but also where it's published.
How do I know? If you're not familiar with the vocabulary of a discipline yourself, you can usually google some of the more puzzling terms to see if any information comes up about them, like a Wikipedia article or other website. Usually you'll be able to figure out whether that's language that's common to a certain discipline or not.
Why is this important? Scholars and researchers publish their findings and ideas in order to contribute to the knowledge of their field. Scholarly sources are a typical (and in some fields, an expected or even required) platform to publish those findings.
Because scholarly sources are intended to keep members of a specific field or discipline up to date on recent research, the target audience is other experts and not the general public. The language, references, and “common knowledge” will be specific to that field or discipline.
Why does this matter? Usually, scholarly sources will represent data in a "boring" way, i.e., no color, mostly charts and graphs, any photos are usually also in black-and-white, etc.
This is not always the case, however, as visual design norms can vary across or even within fields. For instance, this article in Kairos, a peer-reviewed online rhetoric journal, is very visually interesting and colorful: Copyright, Content, and Control: Student Authorship Across Educational Technology Platforms
Why is this important? If an author is citing their sources responsibly using a set citation format that means what you're looking at it is more likely to be scholarly.
Why does it matter if they're citing other scholarly info? Scholars want to make sure their work fits into existing scholarly conversations, so they'll want to make references to other scholarly works within said conversation. Doing so reinforces that you're knowledgeable in this topic and allows you to refer to evidence to back up your argument. It also allows you to try to refute others' arguments.
How do I know if what they're citing is scholarly or not? Use some of the methods on other parts of this page, like googling the journal title or book publisher of other works they're citing to see if they're scholarly publishers. If you're not sure how to find that info, ask a Librarian about how to read a citation!
Why does this matter? Popular sources like newspapers and magazines are intended to be read by a non-specialized audience (you can usually recognize this by simplified language and eye-catching graphic design, as in the example to the right. Sometimes popular sources summarize scholarly sources for a broader audience. It’s important not to confuse a popular writeup of a scholarly source with the actual scholarly source.
Why does this matter? These genres—letters to the editor, book reviews, commentaries, or calls for proposals—are not scholarly sources.
However, you might find them in a scholarly publication. The example to the right is a book review, but it was published in Feminism & Psychology, a peer-reviewed journal. Book reviews are usually labeled clearly, so watch out for them!
Why does this matter? Fiction is not scholarship.
However, scholars in certain disciplines study fiction and publish their work in scholarly journals. For example, a scholar of science fiction could use fictional texts as primary research, as in this example.
How do I know? Locate places in the text where the author makes a claim or argument. Are those claims backed up with evidence? Does the text refer to any source material? Is there a reference list at the end of the text or references given in foot- or endnotes?
If not, that almost certainly means your source is not scholarly.
Why is this important? In scholarship, claims must be backed up with evidence, which has to be locatable. In other words, if you claim something, someone has to be able to find the evidence that backs up that claim, whether it's by looking through the research you yourself did or by referring to something you cited. If there's a claim and no evidence, that usually means you're not looking at a scholarly source.
Why does this matter? Newspapers, while they do go through a fact-checking process that makes them reliable sources, are NOT scholarly sources. They haven't gone through the peer review process. Sometimes newspaper articles are written by scholars, so you're getting scholarly information, but you're not getting peer-reviewed information.
When you're selecting sources to use in a project, you need to think about the context and purpose of what you're writing, as well as your own understanding and comfort level with what you're researching. Does it make sense to use a newspaper article summarizing the findings of a peer-reviewed journal article, or should you go and find the peer-reviewed article itself?
It's also important to consider how current you need your information to be. Newspapers are good sources for topics that are happening right now, as in the example here.
Why does this matter? It depends on the text and textbook whether that content is scholarly or not. Don't assume any textbook is scholarly, but don't assume it's not either. Again, look at who wrote the textbook and who published it.
Not all scholarly articles are peer-reviewed, although many people use these terms interchangeably.
What is peer-review?
Peer-reviewed articles are often referred to by many different names: refereed, academic, scholarly (just to name a few). If you're unclear as to whether you need peer-reviewed information, just ask your professor!
Remember: not all scholarly sources are peer-reviewed, but all peer-reviewed sources are scholarly.
Check out our other tutorials to find out how to locate these sources: