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Scholarly Sources

English 127
Research Writing


For the Literature Review, you're being asked to focus your research energies on locating scholarly journal articles or scholarly book chapters.  But what exactly are these?  As you begin your research, you should be on the lookout for any and all relevant sources with regard to your (narrowed) topic and possible research question since you never know where you might find a useful bit of information or a new perspective or angle that triggers your thinking.  While you will need to continue gathering information on your topic as efficiently, creatively and relentlessly as you can, don't equate sources of established information, such as encyclopedia entries, websites with statistics, etc., with scholarly ones that report the results of original research studies or engage in original and complex analysis and argument on a particular aspect of a topic or research question.  Another way to think about the distinction between information and scholarly sources is to recognize that an information question asks about knowledge that already exists while an original research question asks about knowledge that doesn’t yet exist.  Scholarly sources should all be posing and trying to answer an original research question. 

Another reason for you to be aware of the difference between scholarly and non-scholarly work is that the Final Research Article that you will produce by the end of the course should be scholarly.  Consider the distinctions of scholarly work described below as you start to design and fine-tune your own research question and project.  Is the work you are designing scholarly?  Will it allow you to produce a Final Research Article that has the distinctions below?

WHAT IS A SCHOLARLY SOURCE?

Peer Review Process: A key distinction between different kinds of sources is that scholarly publications are peer reviewed (sometimes called "refereed").  That means that before they are published, they are read and commented on by a board of people within the field.  The author then revises to attempt to meet the editorial board’s demands.  The article is not published until the author has satisfied the editorial board.  When it is published, it includes complete bibliographic information about the author’s research. Make sure you distinguish between a peer review process and an editorial process.  Trade magazines and newspapers have editors whose job is to edit language and sometimes double check the author’s information, but this is not the same as other scholars who are experts in the field scrutinizing the complex analysis provided in an article.  When you use databases like Academic Search Premier or ProQuest Combined Databases, available from the Holman Library website, select the box for "Scholarly (peer reviewed) journals" from the initial search screen to get back results with only scholarly articles.  You should also conduct searches relating to your narrowed topic using Google Scholar.  Unfortunately, you will not always be able to access the full text of the articles (without paying a fee), but you will at least be able to see the titles and often abstracts (summaries) of scholarly journal articles and books.  If you find something that looks really spectacular, consider asking one of our librarians for help in getting the full article. 

Purpose:  The purpose for most scholarly publishing is to offer a research-based argument that is presented as a potential answer to a research question or to present the testing of a hypothesis.  Thus, a data report by itself is not scholarly, nor is an editorial or opinion-piece.  The argument in scholarly work is produced not just by reporting information or, conversely, by speaking from personal experience and viewpoint.  It is the result of interpretive and conceptual analysis on a specific aspect of a topic.  Do not expect scholarly work to take on every part of a large issue.  The nature of it is to choose a narrow focus and engage in complex exploration of that particular focus.

Perspective:  Even when a scholarly source is highly persuasive in tone, the author’s perspective should still be one of reasonable objectivity.  As a reader, you should sense that the scholar is motivated by curiosity and a desire to develop new or improved understanding about a topic.  By way of contrast, a research-based paper published by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is likely to present a perspective that is already established, and the research and publication are primarily designed to support that perspective.  While the article or source could still provide valid information and analysis, we might be more inclined to question whether information and analysis counter to PETA’s goals have been ignored.  In scholarly work, because the researcher is not driven by one agenda, s/he will (ideally) be able and willing to acknowledge and entertain concepts and analyses that may challenge his/her way of thinking, even radically revising initial assumptions.  In addition, the publications or articles of "think tanks" should not be regarded as scholarly.  Many of these, such as the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank), are funded by individuals or institutions with a specific agenda.  The information and analyses they produce are designed specifically to serve the purposes of those who provide their funding.  Again, this does not mean that the viewpoints may not be valuable or persuasive, only that they don't count as scholarly.

Authority/Credentials:  This is an easy one – find out who the author is. Most scholarly work is published by people with advanced degrees in the field in which they publish—as opposed to a journalist who writes about a wide array of topics.  Be aware, however, that authority can be acquired through experience and a history of recognized publishing.  For example, Daniel Lazare is a journalist who has spent most of his career specializing in legal issues.  He has published many articles and books based on his research in this field, specifically Constitutional Law. Though he holds no advanced degrees in law, the body of work he has produced has earned him recognition as an authority on legal questions.

Conversely, it is important to acknowledge that having earned expertise in a field (through experience or education) does not automatically confer the mantle of truth upon everything an “expert” produces.  Scholars with Ph.D.’s can have agendas, their work can (and often is) contested, and sometimes they are just wrong.  You have to engage critically with their data, research methods, and interpretations if you are going to disagree with them; you can't just dismiss them as not knowing what they are talking about.

Place of Publication:  Scholarly articles are typically published in scholarly journals or books, which are typically produced by university presses or professional organizations within that respective field.  Publication in Time, Newsweek, or other trade magazines will be a sure tip off that a source is not scholarly.  Titles like Journal of the American Historical Association and Journal of the Modern Languages Association are scholarly sources.  However, not all scholarly sources have the word "journal" in their titles, e.g., Critical Inquiry, Signs, etc.  Some magazines have the word "journal" in the title but are not scholarly, e.g., Ladies Home Journal.

Some magazines publish writers who are considered experts in their fields.  The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s Weekly are good examples of these kinds of magazines.  The articles they publish may also be long, research-based essays and can be very useful secondary sources.  However, if a peer review process is not involved and bibliographic information is not printed with the article, it should not be considered scholarly.  This does not, however, mean that the content of these articles can be easily dismissed.  If the authors were just making stuff up, these magazines would very quickly lose their credibility and readership.

Documentation/Bibliographic Information:  Scholarly publications will provide documentation of sources through footnotes, endnotes, and a list at the end of the document of the bibliographic information for each source.  They should also present clear in-text citation for quotations and data.  Again, this does not mean that non-scholarly sources that do not provide bibliographic information are not credible or that they are making up all their claims and data, only that the venues where they are published don't follow these protocols.

Note on Webpages:  It is not uncommon to find webpages produced by professors at colleges and universities or other kinds of experts in given fields.  Often these webpages are used to publish arguments or encourage discussion on a particular topic.  However, the material provided on these pages has not been peer reviewed.  Do not consider it scholarly unless it's a reprint of an article or essay that has been published previously in a peer-reviewed publication.

Primary/Secondary/Tertiary:  Most sources can be categorized in one of three categories described below.  You should note that, given the elements of scholarly sources described above, scholarly articles are secondary.  The following descriptions are from The Craft of Research, 3rd edition (2008) by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, pp. 68-70.

Primary Sources:  These are the materials that you directly write about, the “raw data.”  In fields like history and literature that study writers and documents, primary sources are texts from the period or by the author you are studying.  In such fields, you can rarely write a research paper without using primary sources.

Secondary Sources:  These are research reports, whether books or articles, based on primary data or sources.  You can quote or cite them to support your own research.  If a researcher quoted your research report to support his argument, your report would be his secondary source.  If, on the other hand, he were writing your biography, your paper would be a primary source.

Tertiary Sources:  These are books and articles based on secondary sources.  They synthesize and explain research in a field, usually for a popular audience.  Generally, they just restate what others have said.  Tertiary sources can help in the early stages of research, when you are trying to get a sense of a whole field, but they are weak support for new claims because they usually oversimplify, are seldom up-to-date, and are consequently mistrusted by most experts.

Evaluating Sources:  Even after you understand the differences between kinds of sources and why some writers and articles in principle have more credibility than others, there is ultimately no short cut for evaluating the sources themselves.  With regard to the evidence that writers use to support their claims, arguments and interpretation, you have to pay attention to the reliability of the evidence--what CR calls the accuracy, precision, sufficiency, representativeness, and authority of the evidence (pp. 135-138).  You also have to pay attention to the structure of the argument itself, including its claims, reasons, evidence, acknowledgments, responses, and warrants (CR, chapters 7-11).  The best basis for evaluation is to have an understanding of the broad conversation about a particular topic or aspect of a topic:  the disagreements, the sources of disagreements, the counter-arguments, the rebuttals, the evolution of ideas, etc.