Scholarly and Non-Scholarly Sources

Before you begin to research you should be aware of the difference between “scholarly” and “non-scholarly”—or popular—sources.

Scholarly or academic publications are those where academics publish their research and opinions about topics of concern in their discipline.  By and large, scholarly publications are highly specialized periodicals, as many of their titles suggest: College Composition and Communication, Foodservice Research International, and the Journal of Analytic Social Work, for example.  Scholarly periodicals tend to be published less frequently than popular sources—perhaps monthly, quarterly, or even less frequently.  For the most part, the readers of scholarly journals are scholars interested in the specific field of the publication.  In other words, the articles in these publications are written for academics (both students and teachers) interested in the field, not a “general audience.”  Because of the narrower audience, the language of academic journals is often specialized and potentially difficult to understand for a reader not familiar with the field.

Scholarly or academic sources can thus be kind of bland in appearance: other than charts, graphs, and illustrations that appear predominantly in scientific or empirical publications, most academic journals include few color photos or flashy graphics.  Similarly, most academic journals are not published in order to make a profit: while they frequently include some advertising, they usually only include a few ads to offset publication costs.  Also, most academic journals are associated with academic organizations or institutions that subsidize and support their publication.  Unless you are a subscriber, chances are the only places you will find most of these journals is in a college or university library’s physical and electronic holdings.

Usually, the articles that appear in academic journals indicate where the writer’s evidence comes from in footnotes, end notes, or parentheses.  Most academic articles end with a “References,” “Bibliography,” or “Works Cited” page, which is a list of the sources the writers used in their articles.  This practice—generally called “citation”—is particularly important in scholarly writing because the other scholars reading these articles (the main audience) are keenly interested in knowing where the writers found their information.  As a member of the academic community, you, too, will have to follow some system of citation in the research project you do for this and other classes.

Non-scholarly or popular sources tend to be written by journalists and writers who are not necessarily experts about the subject they are writing about. While there certainly are specialized popular sources, they tend to have names most of us have seen on the magazine racks of grocery and drug stores—GQ, Cosmopolitan, Better Homes and Gardens, Sports Illustrated, and so on—and even specialized popular sources tend to be written with a more general audience in mind. Writers of popular sources reach a general and broad audience by keeping the style of the writing in their articles approachable to people from a variety of different educational backgrounds—not necessarily members of a specific academic community.

Note that there are also what are known as professional publications, which are resources that are not scholarly or popular but instead are written by industry insiders with specialized knowledge and language. An example is a trade magazine or journal, such as Education Week or Finance & Development. Sometimes “journal” appears in the title of these sources, so just remember that “journal” doesn’t automatically mean scholarly.