Scholarly vs. Non-Scholarly Sources

Learning Objective

  • Differentiate types of sources

In this module, we break down sources into three categories: print, online, and multimedia. This categorization is based on medium of delivery, and when you want to evaluate the usefulness of a source, starting with the medium makes a lot of sense. In this section, though, we are going to first introduce a broader categorization of sources: scholarly sources and non-scholarly sources. As an academic researcher, this distinction is important. Sources in virtually any medium can be scholarly or non-scholarly.

Scholarly or academic publications are those where academics publish their research 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, or the Journal of Analytic Social Work. Scholarly periodicals tend to be published less frequently than popular sources: perhaps monthly, quarterly, or even less often. For the most part, the readers of scholarly journals are scholars themselves 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 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 tend to be kind of bland in appearance: other than charts, graphs, and illustrations that appear predominantly in scientific publications, most academic journals include few color photos or flashy graphics. 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 place you will find most of these journals is in your college or university library.

Usually, the articles that appear in academic journals indicate where the writer’s evidence comes from with footnotes, end notes, or information in parentheses.  Most academic articles end with a “bibliography” or a “works cited” page, which is a list of the research the writer used in the essay.  This practice—generally called “citation”—is particularly important in scholarly writing because the main audience of these articles (other scholars) is keenly interested in knowing where the writers got 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 the academic community.