Scope: The purpose of this page is to provide guidelines that may be used to determine whether or not an article is scholarly.
A scholarly source (also called a “peer-reviewed” or “academic” source) is one that has been peer-reviewed, contains original research from experts in the field, is written for other experts or scholars, and includes abundant citations. However, this is a lot of information to just know by glancing at an article. How do you tell whether your source fits these criteria just by looking at it? This guide will help you evaluate your article sources from online databases to determine whether or not they are scholarly sources.
Information found in online databases is tricky. You cannot just assume that, because an article is in a database that the library subscribes to, it is automatically a scholarly source. There are key criteria to check for when you are trying to decide whether or not an article is scholarly. It is important to evaluate your sources carefully before choosing to include them in a paper.
Initial evaluation (from database search results record)
You can begin evaluating a source right from the search results page in a database, before opening the record.
Many databases have an option to filter the search results to only show sources that have been peer-reviewed. Peer-reviewed means that before the article was published, it was sent to other experts in the field to be checked for accuracy. Doing this ensures the article’s accuracy and makes it an authoritative source in whatever field it is published in. It also makes it a much better source for students to use when doing research papers, which is why most professors will ask for paper sources to only be scholarly sources.
Some databases, such as those that are hosted by Ebsco Host, will include an icon next to each record, or some other indicator, letting you know what kind of source the database has judged it to be. For a scholarly source in Ebsco, the icon will look like this:
However, even if the source you are looking at does have this icon, you should still check the article to make sure the host site was correct in its judgment; do not simply rely on the database to judge the article for you.
Scholarly sources are found in scholarly journals. To determine whether or not the journal is scholarly, ask yourself:
- What is the title of the publication? Can you tell by looking at it if it is a popular source (like Time or People), or does it sound like an authoritative source?
- Is the journal title descriptive? [Oftentimes scholarly journals have titles that are more descriptive than popular sources.]
- Is the journal title specialized, or clearly for a specific discipline?
Checking for these criteria when looking at the name of the journal your source is found in can help you determine the type of source you are looking at, whether scholarly or popular.
Graphs and Charts
Graphs and charts are good indications of scholarly sources. If the database shows images of graphs and/or charts underneath the information about the article on the search results page, it is most likely a scholarly source. Scholarly sources often include graphs and charts of the results of experiments done, whereas a popular source is more likely to include a photograph or image. If you do not see graphs or charts on the search results page, you can also skim the article itself to check for these images.
Scholarly sources are intended for an academic audience (other experts in the field, students, professors, etc.) so the language of scholarly sources tends to be more sophisticated and discipline-specific than that of popular sources. Questions to ask yourself include:
- Are the subject terms sophisticated?
- Do the subject terms include language that is specific to a particular discipline?
- Are there technical terms included in the subject terms list?
The subject terms simply give an overview of the kind of language associated with the article. If the subject terms are neither sophisticated nor unsophisticated, leaving you uncertain as to the type of source you are looking at, you will be able to investigate the language further when you open the record.
Content Analysis/Digging Deeper (opening a record)
If, after analyzing the article from the search results page, you still think the article would be a useful scholarly source, the next step is to click on the title to open the record and get more detailed information about it.
Consider the authority of the source and what qualifications the author has to write on this subject.
- What education and experience does he or she possess?
- Is the author affiliated with a reputable institution or organization?
- Is the author considered an expert in this field?
- Has the author published other materials on this subject?
Oftentimes scholarly sources will have multiple authors, while popular sources will have only one. This is not true for every scholarly and popular source, so do not use just this one aspect as the final decision maker without looking at the other points.
After opening the record, the title of the journal will be displayed again. Clicking on the journal title will take you to a page with more detailed publication information for the journal. Some questions to ask yourself when you look at this information are:
- Is the publisher a university or a scholarly association or society?
- Some databases include information on the type of publication a source is. If this is included, is the publication type an “academic journal” or “peer-reviewed journal”?
- Does the publication information say that the journal has been peer-reviewed?
The publication information is one of the most important aspects of determining whether or not a source is scholarly, so check for as much of this information as you can.
Who an article is written for can tell you a lot about the kind of source you are looking at. Scholarly sources are written by experts for experts and scholars in the field for which they are writing. Non-scholarly sources are written for the general public.
- Looking at both the language and content of the article, can you tell what kind of an audience the article was written for (general public vs. scholars/academics/experts)?
If your analysis of the subject terms did not give you a clear idea of the kind of language used in the article, you can scan the article itself to determine whether or not the language used is geared toward scholars or the general public.
- Is the language sophisticated?
- Are technical terms being used?
Scholarly articles include an abstract to give the reader an overview of the topic of their article and what their research or experimental process was. The abstract gives a summary of the article. Looking at an abstract is a good way to get a sense of the tone and content of an article. Many databases will show the abstract on the detailed record page, but if not you can open the article to view the abstract there.
- Does the article include an abstract?
- Is the language in the abstract sophisticated?
- Are technical terms being used in the abstract?