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5) Evaluate Sources: Scholarly Sources

A University of Lethbridge Library guide to evaluating sources.

What is a Scholarly Source?

Perhaps the first step in evaluating any source is to determine whether or not it is scholarly. Many professors require students to use exclusively scholarly sources in their research, so it is important to know what scholarly sources are and how to identify them.

Scholarly sources are authored by scholars and professionals who are experts in their fields. They generally provide original research, or reviews and analyses of others' research. They are often subject to a peer review process prior to publication, in which other experts review the work to ensure that it meets the standards of quality academic research. These reviewers (also called referees) may accept the work as it is, make recommendations for its improvement, or reject its publication outright. This process helps to ensure that scholarly sources are accurate and credible.

Scholarly sources are also referred to as academic, peer reviewed, or refereed sources. 

Identifying Scholarly Sources

Determining whether or not a source should be considered scholarly is not always straightforward. There are, however, many clues to look for that can lead you to make a confident decision about each source you're considering. The questions below should help you in recognizing and uncovering these clues. Some only apply to particular kinds of sources.

  • Is the source peer reviewed? Some sources (especially scholarly journals) explicitly state that their contents have undergone a peer review process. This information can usually be found on the journal's website. Peer reviewed sources are scholarly sources.
  • Does the author have credentials and institutional affiliations relevant to the topic of the source? Scholarly sources are written by experts in their field. It is helpful, then, to know the author's credentials and affiliations. This information may not be provided in the source, and so may require an Internet search. Be wary of any source that is not written by a scholar or professional in its field of study.
  • Who is the publisher? Certain publishers are more likely to print scholarly works than others. Academic institutions (e.g. Oxford University Press), professional organizations (e.g. American Psychological Association), and government offices or departments (e.g. Department of Foreign AffairsTrade and Development) typically publish trustworthy materials. Publishing companies may publish scholarly and non-scholarly works, though many specialize in one or the other. Routledge, for example, is a prolific publisher of academic books, journals, and online resources. Conversely, Penguin Random House prints popular materials for a general public audience.
  • Who is the intended audience? This may not be immediately clear, but a closer examination of the source should help you to determine whether the author is writing to the general public or to others with a specialized knowledge of the subject area. Scholarly sources are written by experts, for experts, so be especially cautious with any source that doesn't seem to assume a reader familiar with the discipline.
  • Does the source include citations? Scholarly sources are founded on extensive academic research and always cite their sources. Look for footnotes, endnotes, a reference list, or a bibliography, and ensure that most of the sources cited also appear scholarly. Few or no citations, or citations for non-academic works, are signs suggesting that you are not looking at a scholarly source.
  • How is the information presented in the source? Unlike many popular sources, scholarly sources don't aim to attract the reader with glossy pages and colourful pictures and font. Most academic works consist primarily of text, though some may include many graphs, charts, and diagrams. When there are pictures, they are usually used sparingly and only to support points made in the text. Be wary of sources that are heavily illustrated with many colour graphics.

NOTE: When determining whether or not an article in a serial publication is scholarly, you may also want to consult the table on the evaluating articles page.

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