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History: Identify and evaluate academic sources

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 Note that there are many quite scholarly or academic journals and conferences that are not peer reviewed.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!

Quality analysis checklist

Analyse the references you locate

The more marks in the 'Yes' column, the more likely the article or paper is to be acceptable for academic purposes. (There is downloadable PDF under the table)

  Yes No

1. Source of Content:

A. Are sources cited or references provided in the source? This means parenthetical in-text citations or footnotes are provided, indicating where information and ideas were taken from and an extensive reference list is provided at the end of the source. If sources are not cited, stop! A source without references is not a scholarly source.    
B. Is the source an in-depth treatment of its subject (usually several pages long with a lot of detailed information and in-depth analysis)?    
C. Does the source have a thesis or argument or claim it’s trying to prove, or (if it's a report of scientific research) a conclusion drawn from the research? Most scholarly sources have a claim they are trying to prove, or a conclusion drawn from the research.    
D. Does the source incorporate original research? Most scholarly sources are a combination of original research and analysis of earlier research, though in some cases they just review or summarize or analyze earlier research.    

2. Information about the publisher of the source:

A. Is the source published by a college or university, or by a scholarly professional organization (For example, Journal of the American Medical Association, or American Quarterly, published by the American Studies Association, an interdisciplinary association of scholars who study American culture)    
B. If your source is an article, is the journal it was published in peer-reviewed or refereed by other experts in the field?    
C. Is the title of the source descriptive and specific? Scholarly sources usually have more informative titles than non-scholarly sources. An example of a very specific title might be "Understanding the social context of violent and aggressive incidents on an inpatient unit," whereas an example of a general title might be "The Medicated Child."    
D. Is the title of the source specialized? Titles of scholarly sources are usually addressed to specialized audiences. An example of a specialized title might be "Genetically Modified Crops and Risk Assessment in the UK," whereas a nonspecialized title might be "Multinational Companies Unite to Fight Bribery."    

3. The authors of the source:

A. Is the author a scholar/expert/specialist in the field? Does the author have an advanced degree? Scholarly sources are usually written by people with advanced degrees in their field. Degrees are often listed after the author's name (Ph.D., M.D.,  M.A., etc.). Journals often provide descriptions of the author's credentials at the start of the source or in a separate "Notes on Contributors" section.    
B. Is the author affiliated with a college or university? Scholarly sources are usually written by professors at colleges or universities. Authors' affiliations are often listed at the beginning of the source, right after the author's name.    
C. Have the authors declared any conflict of interest or bias? For example, a conflict of interest would be a person who wrote an source on the benefits of smoking, but works for a tobacco company.    

4. The audience of the source:

A. Is the source addressed to other specialists in the field? Scholarly sources are usually addressed to other specialists in the field. This might take the form of assuming the reader knows what the issues, debates, controversies or questions in the field are.    
B. Does the author of the source write as if the reader already knows the basics of the topic? Scholarly sources usually assume familiarity with the topic. This might take the form of mentioning names, titles, or ideas as though the reader already knows who or what they are.    

5. The language and appearance of the source:

A. Is the language of the source specialized? Does it use technical vocabulary or concepts? Scholarly sources usually use specialized or technical language.    
B. Is the tone of the source serious, written to inform or persuade, not to entertain or amuse?     
C. Does the source, and the journal in which it appears, consist mainly of large blocks of text, with few graphics or other visual elements to break it up? Most scholarly sources are primarily text, unless they include graphics whose purpose is to convey information, such as charts and graphs.    
D. Is the format plain and simple?    
E. Are the graphics included to inform rather than entertain?