Popular vs. Scholarly Sources 101

Help prepare students for a productive research strategy by demonstrating the differences between poplar and scholarly sources.

thinking emojiOkay, think fast. How do you tell the difference between popular and scholarly sources?

Maybe a little list runs through your head, like this:

  • Is there evidence of peer review?
  • Does the article list sources?
  • Is it a college or university publication?

For the instructor who has been teaching this for years, settling the debate is old hat. But if you are just starting out in your teaching career, the topic has a whole new point of view. Exactly how do you determine the types of sources, anyway?

Start With Basics

Sources, whether popular or scholarly, should be trustworthy. It’s easy to fall into the mindset of “Oh, if it isn’t scholarly, it isn’t a good source.”

No – wait. Some popular sources are very reliable even though they are popular sources. Think about newspaper columns, radio programs, and magazines. If you can find an author’s (or commentator’s) name, the title of the publication or program, and the publication source and date, then you have a good start on verifying the trustworthiness of the article.

But if you run across something that has very little publication information, you have a problem. How can you prove that you didn’t make up that information if you can’t find it again?

Stay safe. Choose trustworthy sources before you dive into the popular and scholarly debate. Then, you can start to separate types of sources.

Identify the Difference

Popular Sources

Popular articles are usually written by non-specialists. For example, newspaper articles are written by reporters and journalists. These writers are not experts on earthquakes or bank robberies: they just give you the facts and a method for interpreting the information. The information has to be accurate: but it is not usually written by someone who studies the particular event for a living.

Popular texts allow the reader to find general information about a topic. It’s the springboard to further research.

SourcesThere are usually no sources or ‘for further reading’ lists added to a popular article. It is information published to be consumed, more as a way of entertaining or simply informing rather than to deeply educate the reader on some finite equations of engineering.

Popular sources are also those generally proofread by an editor, not by a panel of peers. The difference, here, is this: an editor checks for grammatical and format errors. An editor can spot a bad piece of logic instantly, and these people know good writing when they see it. But editors do not know every field for which they edit. It’s like having a doctor who is a general practitioner compared to a medical specialist: the GP is good. But the specialist has a greater depth of knowledge of a finite field.

Popular articles, therefore, are usually generic in their approach. Their goal is to inform. Get the news out, grab attention, let people know what’s going on. Popular texts allow the reader to find general information about a topic. It’s the springboard to further research.

Scholarly Sources

Scholarly articles are written by experts in specific fields. The articles, themselves, are reviewed by more experts in the field. And there are usually lists of sources that the author(s) accessed and cited when they wrote the article.

Why be concerned about source lists?

  1. These show that the author has actually done research. The information isn’t just spun from thin air and hopeful thoughts.
  2. It is also important because this can be a cheat list of sources for the reader.

There will probably be some very standard, already-read pieces there. But a works cited is also a good place to find new works that the reader hasn’t seen yet. Use that goldmine to forward your own research!

What about the peer review?

Essentially, peer review is a way to make sure that information is accurate to the specific field of study.Scholarly topics are intricate. And there are a number of ways that things can go wrong, errors that a non-specialist wouldn’t notice. If someone was proposing a medical procedure and accidentally reversed a few steps when writing the article… things could go very wrong.

Peer review panels examine articles to look for errors. Whether it’s giving faulty information on J. S. Bach’s orchestration practices or spotting a scientific goof in the middle of a math calculation in astronomy, the peers try to weed out information that is inaccurate, unsafe, inapplicable or old news.

Essentially, peer review is a way to make sure that information is accurate to the specific field of study.

Essentially, peer review is a way to make sure that information is accurate to the specific field of study. It requires more than a simple spell check or formatting review: it means that the idea is thoroughly vetted before it hits the press. That helps to prevent malpractice suits and it helps to promote new ideas in a logical and secure way.

Track the Clues

Once you have the differences between scholarly and popular sources nailed down, you can use some easier clues for quickly identifying articles. Here are some key ideas to keep in mind –

Online CoursesAre there a lot of photos or illustrations? If yes, then this may not be a scholarly source. For the most part, illustrations and pictures go with easier-to-digest material that isn’t peer reviewed.

Are there a lot of advertisements in the journal? If there are many ads, then this, again, is generally not a scholarly source.

Is the article very short? If so, then it may not be a scholarly article. Material that is too general or unspecific is not usually complex enough to require peer editing.

Is this a book review? Although these are published in scholarly journals, they are not, in and of themselves, scholarly sources. Get the book, instead of trusting the review.

Was this published by a university or college? If yes, then this is probably a scholarly source.

The best way to prepare students for good research is to demonstrate what quality sources look like. Give good examples, so that students know the gold standard.

When reviewing a piece of literature for possible research support, it’s up to the reader to decide whether something is trustworthy – or not. If a piece seems to claim the opposite result of what you’ve read from other sources, then you may want to look for a different article. If there are typos, this also makes you wonder about the trustworthiness of the publication. And if it just doesn’t feel right but you can’t say why… there’s probably a reason. Drop this one and move on to the next.

The best way to prepare students for good research is to demonstrate what quality sources look like. Give good examples, so that students know the gold standard.

Adding It Up

There are a number of different sources that you and your students can use when doing research for a paper. From YouTube videos to magazines and TV ads and almost anything in between, the materials used to support the point of a paper are many.

Good quality sources, both popular and scholarly, mean that someone is a discriminating consumer of information. The person is able to look beyond the nonessentials and can bring up the facts. Once students know that they are making good research choices, they have more impetus to trust their own work – and this allows for some very good writing.

 

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Louisa Danielson
Louisa Danielson, B. A., M. A., teaches English composition at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne. Articles by Louisa have appeared in a variety of publications, including Dialogue: the Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, South Texas English Studies, The Musical Times and several popular publications. When she isn’t writing, teaching, or grading English, Louisa likes to explore classical music.

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