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Using Sources: Evaluating Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism

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What are Scholarly and Popular Sources?

There are many sources of information -- websites, books, magazines, journals, newspapers, friends -- and which sources you use depends on your needs. Generally, sources fall on a spectrum between scholarly and popular.

Scholarly Sources
Popular Sources
   Time magazine cover   newspaper
Experts, researchers
Reporters, journalists, professionals, company employees, or anyone
Written for:
Other experts and researchers
Written for:
Regular people
University, academic press, sometimes government
Newspaper, magazine,non-academic publisher or website
Advanced, technical, scholarly
General language
To report research findings, build on the academic literature
To inform, entertain, convince, market, or sell
Reviewed by other experts (peer review)
Basic editing
Yes; look for footnotes or a list of sources at the end of the article.
Not usually, though studies or other sources may be mentioned

Do I Need Scholarly or Popular Sources?

Okay, so which is better - scholarly or popular?

You will need both scholarly and popular sources in your research, because each type has its own strengths and weaknesses.

  Scholarly Popular
  • In-depth analysis of a very specific issue.
  • Highest quality information with minimum bias.
  • Good overview of a broad issue.
  • Best source for current events.
  • Typically longer and more difficult to read due to technical language.
  • Publication is slower than popular sources because of the in-depth review process, which can take months.  You will not find scholarly articles about current events as they are unfolding.
  • Little (if any) editing or fact-checking.
  • Questionable quality and potential for bias.
  • Requires more time for you to critically evaluate.
When to Use
  • When you already know a lot about your topic and want in-depth, authoritative information.
  • When you are just beginning your research and need background info and basic facts.

More advanced, subject-focused classes (psychology, sociology, literature...) may require you to use only scholarly sources, so read the assignment instructions.

Scholarly articles are not always better than popular ones.  Sometimes a newspaper or magazine will serve you better than a peer-reviewed article.  To make the best use of sources, take the time to evaluate them and determine whether they are truly useful for you.  You should be able to explain why you used a particular source and what it contributed to your paper.

Look Closer

Here are a few factors to consider when you evaluate a source:

Author.  Who is the author? 

Purpose.  Why was the source created?

Date.  When was the source created?

Reliability.  How reliable is the information?

Relevance.  How relevant is the source?

Evaluating Source Credibility

This video, from North Carolina State University, discusses using some of the ideas on this page to evaluate the credibility of a source.

More on Evaluating Sources

Want more about how to evaluate a source?  See our guide How To...Identify Scholarly Information.