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Geosciences: Academic sources

A guide to support and resources for the study of geology, geophysics, geochemistry and related subjects.

Peer reviewed, academic, scholarly? Is this resource suitable?

The library provides access to thousands of journal (periodical) titles, both print and electronic. Electronic databases of full text articles come via publishers who aggregate the contents of thousands of journals. Effectively, journal issues are dismembered, digitised and reassembled. This makes for easier searching and identification of relevant material across a span of years. But the absence of the customary navigation aids eg tables of contents, layout, fonts (unless .pdf), general look, feel, smell, etc, can make it difficult to guage the 'worthiness' of individual articles.

Academic writing is not confined to journals. Non-textbook academic sources such as monographs and books of edited readings may contribute to the development of your ideas. And some research literature is openly available on the internet. Applying evaluation measures will enable you to recognise acceptable sources.

Some definitions

academic in writing. Quality of a work which seeks to clarify, explain and extend concepts belonging to the topic and discipline. Features of academic works include any or all of the following: authoritative, formal, intellectual, learned, objective, original, reasoned, technical, theoretical in employment. A scholar associated with a university. An adequate output of peer reviewed literature is a requirement for progression as an academic employee
Synonomous with 'academic'
peer reviewed
Synonomous with 'refereed'. Peer review is a formal process whereby any article submitted to a journal or conference is sent to several established scholars in that field of study. These scholars may suggest improvements before deciding if the article should be published or included in the conference. It is a common practice in academic disciplines and some professions. Peer reviewed articles are authoritative because they have been judged, by specialists or experts within academic and / or industry fields, to offer important insights / findings / knowledge about an issue / debate / discipline.

Peer review can be a lengthy process so peer reviewed commentary on current events may be difficult to locate. Note that there are many quite scholarly or academic journals and conferences that are not peer reviewed.

primary sources
These could be, for example, Hansard, court documents, manuscripts, patents, etc. They are the record of someone who not only was there but was directly involved. An account from the frontline of a field of endeavour could be a valuable resource (eg paper by company CEO, journalist on the ground in a war zone) but may not qualify as a scholarly resource. You may need to perform other checks to establish whether primary sources are acceptable eg ask the lecturer
Synonomous with 'peer reviewed'

Scholarly journal v. Popular magazine

Sometimes lecturers insist students locate and use information only from scholarly or peer reviewed journals. Use the library databases to search the journals specified by the lecturer in the unit outline. Some databases allow searches to be limited to peer reviewed or refereed material. Use this function with caution as acceptable scholarly resources may be excluded. Some quite scholarly journals and conferences are not peer reviewed. Also, even though a journal title has 'peer review' status, it does not mean that every piece of the publication will have been peer reviewed eg editorial opinion pieces, book reviews, short news articles, etc. This means you need to carefully examine each article. Evaluating resources is a necessary part of the research process and requires critical thinking skills.

Check journal peer review status

To establish definitively whether a particular journal title is peer reviewed or refereed the university uses specific tools, for example,

To determine the ranking of journal titles, these are used:

These help determine the quality of staff publication output when reporting to government. Funding to universities is allocated partly on the outcome of these measures.

Why is a bibliography so important?

The documentation of the evolution of ideas is a fundamental process in academic research. A bibliography shows the sources used by the writer. The reader can examine those sources in order to decide for themselves the validity of the conclusions presented. Sources that come from scholarly and peer reviewed publications would suggest that the article or conference paper might be a worthy contribution to the body of knowledge in that field.

Failure to acknowledge the source of ideas and passing them off as your own is 'plagiarism'. Plagiarism is defined as taking, using, and passing off as your own, the ideas or words of another. It is a serious academic offence and can result in your work being failed automatically. The best way to avoid it is to take careful notes of where you found your information, and to always acknowledge the work of others ie finish your essays with a bibliography.

Bibliographies from books, articles and conference papers are also a useful source of further references to use when writing essays and theses.


Literature that meets these criteria is often academic:

  • the publication is peer reviewed
  • the publication is published / edited by a university or scholarly society
  • the author of the article is from a university or scholarly society
  • the publication reports research
  • the publication contains a bibliography and references other works
  • the publication is written by more than one author
  • the paper was presented at a conference, particularly an international conference, and definitely if the papers were peer reviewed

Articles from these publications are often NOT academic:

  • newspapers
  • magazines and trade journals
  • newsletters
  • journals published weekly or more frequently (although significant exceptions include Nature and Science)
  • very short articles (eg one or two pages)
  • articles that have no bibliography

BUT, there are no absolute rules! Exercise critical judgement!

Quick guide to peer review

This quick tutorial provides a basic explanation of what peer review is, why it matters and how to recognise peer reviewed sources. Approximate time required - 5 minutes.

Link to the first slide of the online tutorial 'What is Peer Review'. Click on to access this tutorial.

Academic sources

In researching for essays and other academic assignment tasks, you will usually be looking for relevant information in academic sources. This section explains what an academic source is, and how to identify one, as well as the related concept of peer review.

Academic (or scholarly)

The quality of a work of writing which seeks to clarify, explain and extend concepts belonging to the topic and discipline. An equivalent term is “scholarly”.  Academic works include: journal articles, monographs, books of edited readings, conference papers, working papers and theses.

Peer reviewed (or refereed) articles

Your lecturers will often require that in assignments you use information from academic journal articles that are peer reviewed (an alternative term is “refereed”).  Peer review is a formal quality control process whereby a scholarly article submitted to a journal is evaluated by several recognised experts in that discipline. These “referees” judge whether it makes a sufficient contribution to knowledge in the discipline and is of a sufficient standard to justify publication. Academic book manuscripts and many conference papers are also commonly peer reviewed. 

Some journal databases may allow you to limit your search to just peer reviewed articles.  If you are unsure whether a particular journal is peer-reviewed/refereed, check the database, or ask the Library.

Note: Depending on the discipline, there can be many published scholarly and academic journals and conference papers that are not peer-reviewed,  often due to the typically lengthy process involved.

Examples of non-academic works

Articles from these publications, or with the following characteristics, are often NOT academic:

  • newspapers
  • magazines and trade journals
  • newsletters
  • journals published weekly or more frequently (although significant exceptions include Nature and Science)
  • very short articles (eg one or two pages)
  • articles that have no bibliography 

BUT, there are no absolute rules! Exercise critical judgement.  It is often appropriate and necessary to also refer to non-academic publications in an assignment. Be guided by the set requirements for the particular assignment.  If in doubt about the suitability of a particular article for an assignment task, ask your lecturer.

Checklist for identifying an academic article

The following factors are characteristic of academic articles, and especially those that are peer reviewed.

Abstract    The first page of an academic article usually includes an abstract (summary)

Length    They are usually substantial (eg  at least 8 pages)

References   Extensive reference to past research is a key feature of academic works. References are recorded in footnotes or in a reference list at the end of the article.

Author affiliations and qualifications   Does the author hold a position in a university or a recognised research organisation relevant to the discipline?  Author information, often including contact details, is usually included on the first or final page of an article. Often an article has more than one author.  In a monograph of readings there may be a separate section with brief details on the contributors.

Appearance and format    Academic articles are text based, and can include tables, figures and charts, but little other illustration or advertising. The body of the document is divided in to sections such as: Introduction; Literature Review; Methodology; Results; Discussion; Conclusion; References

Voice   Academic works use the technical  language of the particular discipline. The writer assumes some knowledge on the part of the reader.

Publisher    Is the publisher an academic publishing house, university, research organisation, professional body or other recognised authority producing research?

Recommendation   Is it a journal recommended by your lecturer, or included in the unit reading list?

Further resources

Evaluating the reliability of sources.

This tutorial will enable you to identify the key features of good quality academic sources.

Approximately time required - 15 minutes.

Beware of 'Predatory' Publications

You also need to be very wary of the many scam and poor quality journals - predatory companies masquerading as scholarly journals with acadmic sounding titles, which now operate in this ‘open access’ era.  We often refer to these as Predatory or Vanity Publications, where the main function is financial for the publishers, rather than true scientific endevour, and they often directly solicit articles, charging authors for publication. 

While publication fees are common in some traditional journals as well, for the predatory publishers, their publishing objective is to receive the author fees, rather than expanding the communication of sound science. Predatory publishers often recruit potential authors via mass emails, often describing journals with such a broad scope that nearly anything could fit with the mission of the journal.

Predatory publishers often claim to be peer reviewed but the review process they provide is not rigorous, and in some cases it appears to be entirely absent.  (Modified from

The Ryerson University in California has a good checklist for evaluating journal bona fides.