Méthodologie de l'Histoire du Québec / Quebec History Methodology
How to Recognize Scholarly Sources
Department of Social Science and Commerce,
For the budding social scientist, one of the most difficult tasks in doing assigned papers is to use sources of documentation that the instructor is going to approve, to accept. In doing your work, you will be expected to use scholarly (or academic) sources (as opposed to popular or general sources) . One of the problems that will be encountered, you will soon realize, is that scholarly sources mean different things to different people, especially if they come from different disciplines. The student is often caught in the middle of these divergent interpretations. What follows are considerations that ought to help you sort things out, and maximize your chances that you are indeed using acceptable scholarly sources.
The first thing to accept when attempting to determine what is a scholarly source is that no single criterion will make a source instantly recognizable as a scholarly source, not even the age-old "peer reviewed" criterion. That a source has been peer-reviewed does not guarantee, in itself, that it is scholarly. In the abstract, any group – however strange it may be – can establish a journal, create an editorial board and "review" any text submission to it. Would that necessarily make the journal scholarly? The answer is no. Several more criteria would have to be met for the journal to be recognized as scholarly. The "peer-reviewed" criterion is especially questionable if the source from which it has been derived is a database that provided the reader with the option of selecting "scholarly" articles only. The reader does not know what criteria were followed by the editors of the database to determine whether or not the article was scholarly. Such classifications of sources ought to be scrutinized, and students that accept them without question take responsibility for something that they will likely be unable to justify to their instructor. As well, while the criterion of peer-reviewed may make a contribution in recognizing a journal article as "scholarly", it is of very little help in determining if a book or a web site are.
In reality, only a combination of different criteria – and the more criteria the better – will help you recognize that a source is scholarly and increase the likelihood that it will be accepted as such. Three broad sets of criteria should be applied to determine that a source is scholarly: those that touch on the purpose of the source, the author of the piece, and the packaging of it (for want of a better term).
The purpose of a source
Scholarly or professional sources wish primarily to advance knowledge, or to report to the community of scholars on developments in the field. What is presented is ordinarily original research, or a new way to look at the material. It usually involves a review of the literature on the subject and leads to a summation of the new findings. Its intended audience is academics, researchers and students in institutions of higher learning. Publishing a scholarly study is possibly the result of years of research. Its production has gone through several drafts and it is likely that colleagues have been asked to comment on these drafts. The scholarly piece is not written primarily with a financial or commercial gain in mind, although such a reward – often in the form of a grant, scholarship or academic prize, sometimes in an academic promotion – may incidentally come to its author. Essentially, the work of the scholar is objective, gratuitous, a selfless act, and a by-product of the position of instructor in academia.
By contrast, the writer of a popular source relies heavily on the work of others, digesting rapidly its content, and explaining it briefly to the public. The aim of a popular writer is primarily to entertain and/or to make money; indeed, in some fashion, the author is likely paid for the book or article that is published. When information is provided, it is at best general in nature. In this respect, it should be kept in mind that the primary purpose of a newspaper, or magazine, is not to provide information but to make money. In order to make money, information, or entertainment, are provided. The commercial motive is behind many of the decisions that are taken by the editorial board. Sometimes, the purpose of a popular source is to advance "a cause". This is frequently the case for websites whose intent is to foster a political, ideological, environmental or business point of view. The intended audience of the popular source is ordinarily the general public.
Thus, the first question to ask yourself when confronted by a source is: what is its purpose? If the answer is to advance knowledge in academia, then you are already well on the way to demonstrating that it is scholarly.
The second point to consider in determining if a source is scholarly is to look at the author. The author ought to be a scholar. This means that there should be clear scholarly credentials – degrees from recognized universities; the more credentials, the better presumably. To attain these degrees, the author has gone through a rigorous process – multiple courses, comprehensive exams, thesis defended before a review committee, etc. Such a process, which engages the reputation of a College or University, gives a reasonable guarantee that acceptable professional/academic norms have been met. Sometimes, professional associations place an extra hurdle for the scholar to cross.
Yet, it is not sufficient to find out that one has university degrees to state that their work must be scholarly. The author has to be a specialist of the subject dealt with in the piece under review. Has the author been trained on this issue or subject, in this field? Has the author worked on this subject for a long period of time, often for years? Has the author published other pieces on the same subject? Is the author writing in his field of specialization? A person with a Ph.D in chemistry writing about the causes of the French Revolution should not be presumed to have written a scholarly piece. The reverse is also true: the historian writing on chemistry would not be in any better position.
Scholars are usually associated with institutions of higher learning, such as universities or colleges, or with research organizations (as long as these organizations do not have a commercial or ideological purpose). Thus, the scholars are university or college professors, or graduate students in the process of acquiring their credentials under the supervision of scholars.
By contrast, popular sources are usually written by professional writers or journalists, free-lance commentators that deal regularly with a variety of subjects. The time they have had to research their topic is inevitably short and they likely do not have a long academic formation on the subject. For the most part, they rely for their information on the research of others and their topics are frequently matters of public interest, issues that are very much in the news. Still, such sources might have something of interest to say on the subject. They should be consulted with particular care.
It is my view that scholars always remain scholars, as long as they are writing in their field of specialization. Many scholars are asked to present their findings to the general public in a medium that would not ordinarily be scholarly. Such pieces should not be rejected, and can be consulted by the student. However, it should be remembered that by their very general nature (since the intended audience is the general public) they will not supply the student with very detailed analysis and elaborate data. They can be used as introduction to the more scholarly works of the same author.
A word of caution: if the author of a piece is not known, and consequently the credentials cannot be ascertained, do not use this source. This is especially relevant for material posted on the web.
The last major element to help determine if a source is scholarly is the packaging. Scholarly and popular sources do not look the same. They each have characteristics that make them easily distinguishable from each other.
Scholarly sources include inevitably what might be called the trappings of scholarship. In a scholarly piece, it is essential that all statements be supported by evidence; and when evidence is introduced it will be properly referenced so that the reader can examine it at will to see if it indeed supports the contention made. Thus, citations are essential. By the scope of these citations, the reader is able to determine the extent of the scholarship of the author, the knowledge that the author has of the literature on the subject, the influences that are implicitely or explicitely recognized. These citations are given parenthetically, or as footnotes/endnotes (as is usually done in history). The reader should never neglect these citations. As well, scholarly sources should have an extensive bibliography, or a list of works cited. Again, this serves the same purposes as the citations do and gives the reader the opportunity to pursue further readings on the subject, and to measure the scholarship of the author. In the popular sources, citations and bibliography will not be found, or, if found, will be very rudimentary. The reader will not be in the position to know well where the information comes from and to measure its degree of credibility.
In examining the source, it ought to be easy to know its publisher. Scholarly pieces are published by scholarly presses, such as university or college presses, professional associations or academic journals; sometimes, the publisher is a commercial enterprise that specializes in publishing academic material (in Canada, as in several other countries, such publishers are sometimes supported by government grants for publication). In these cases, there exist editorial boards of specialists in the field that have examined the work and declared it to be of sufficient scientific merit to warrant publication. The popular sources are published by organizations that have primarily a commercial purpose. Their publications are frequently on topical and popular issues /people.
Scholarly sources do not ordinarily contain advertising, unless it is to promote/announce a professional conference or another scholarly publication. By contrast, the popular source will have a sizeable portion of its space given to advertising. Such is obviously the case in newspapers and glossy magazines.
Unless the context would dictate otherwise – as in the case of a book on Renaissance painters for example – scholarly sources contain few illustrations. They rely primarily on textual presentation. They appear plain, many would consider them unappealing and dull. They require implicit interest on the part of the reader as opposed to generating interest by a colourful presentation. What the scholarly source is likely to have are diagrams, charts and tables, each properly presented, analyzed and referenced. By contrast, the popular source relies heavily on iconography, will be colourful and engaging. The interest of the reader must be sustained.
Scholarly sources are written in a very formal style, maintaining an academic tone, frequently with a heavy conceptual base and unfortunately only intelligible to the initiated. In them, you should not find contractions, colloquial expressions and personal forms. Sentences and paragraphs will conform to the strictest requirements of the language. The popular source will be written in a much more informal, lively, style, one that the general public can easily follow. It will be constructed so as to generate and maintain interest. There will be very little conceptual basis and specialized vocabulary used.
* * * * *
Thus, there are several ways to ascertain that a source is scholarly. All the tests should be applied: determine the purpose of the piece, consider the credentials of the author, examine the packaging. Only the accumulation of evidence will create a reasonable certainty that a source is academic /scholarly.
© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College