Academic versus non-academic sources

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Beginning college students may be unclear about the types of materials that they can refer to in papers, so it is necessary to provide an overview of different types of sources, and why some are preferred, possibly acceptable, or not suitable for college papers (e.g., research papers and essays). These generally fall into the category of general, popular sources, which are usually not suitable for college papers (but with exceptions), and academic papers. However, some better quality, higher level non-academic sources are typically used, especially for first-year (and second-year) papers. These will be referred to as professional sources here.

  • Academic sources: Written by academic experts on the topic, for others in their academic, scholarly, or research community, or at least for those with some academic knowledge of the field.
  • Professional sources: Written by academic experts or otherwise trained professionals, and written for educated non-experts.
  • Popular or general sources: Written probably by non-experts on the topic, for a general audience.

See also: Academic versus non-academic writing

Sources can be categorized as academic, professional, or popular by the following criteria.

  1. Author (including qualifications, credentials, expertise)
  2. Audience
  3. Information (type, quality, and depth of information; primary or secondary information)
  4. Quality control (mechanisms to ensure the information is accurate and of good quality)

These in turn affect factors like tone, style, and the type of venue where it is published.

1 Popular or general sources

Popular sources have little or no quality control, expertise, or consistency in quality, in terms of the writers and producers of these contents, and would not be suitable for citing in college papers (but see below for exceptions). These sources are generally not used and used in college papers for the following reasons.

1.1 Characteristics

The authors may or may not be qualified to write about the topic. They may be knowledgeable, but are not real experts--they are not properly trained academic experts, and/or lack even the professional expertise and professional background to be recognized as an expert in a profession or field.
The source is intended for a very general audience--young or old, educated or non-educated--basically, anyone who can read.
The information is often secondary--the author got the information from somewhere else--and the original source of the information may be unknown, unverifiable, or even fairly credible (but not the best). The source of the information may be cited only briefly or informally (e.g., "researchers at X University have reported...") or not at all. The information lacks the quality, precision, or depth of better sources, and is thus not suitable for college papers. It may also be merely anecdotal, hearsay, subjective, biased, or even fake.
Quality control
There may be limited or no quality control mechanisms. There might be editors checking the writing for basic accuracy, but the writers and/or editors are not experts. The quality control might focus on the piece's commercial value as well as its basic informativeness.

1.2 Examples

Typical examples include:

  1. Popular periodicals - magazines and newspapers written for a very general audience. Examples would include The Guardian, Seattle Times, Sports Illustrated, Vogue, Entertainment Weekly, Readers Digest
  2. Most popular trade books, i.e., non-fiction books written and marketed to a very general audience, and/or by authors who are not academic experts on their topic, and generally do not cite references for their information. Examples include many popular self-help books, textbooks, and most books found in commercial bookstores.
  3. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other common reference works (including Wikipedia). The information in these works may be common knowledge or too mundane and general for an academic audience; or those producing the contents may not be qualified experts in the particular topic referenced, or the quality may be inconsistent.
  4. Textbooks. Books written primarily as high school or college textbooks may not have suitable depth or expertise; they might contain bias or errors; and the information is generally common knowledge, at least in the particular field. For example, an introductory physics textbook would contain information that is not really new to other physicists.
  5. Popular media sources. For example: TV shows, movies, blogs, popular music, Youtube videos, Facebook posts.
  6. Works of fiction, e.g., novels.
  7. Smaller, lesser-known newspapers or news outlets, as well as news outlets that have a particular agenda, i.e., they are so liberal or conservative that their focus is persuading the audience or catering to a particular audience viewpoint, rather than pure journalism to inform the public.

1.3 Exceptions

There are some logical exceptions to this general guideline of not citing popular sources, for example:

  • In literature classes, it is common to cite fictional works (novels, poems, and such).
  • In humanities courses, poplar media sources are often cited as examples of how literary works have been interpreted or adapted in film or TV; or as examples of how media and culture influence each other; or as examples of video techniques.
  • In social science or humanities courses, popular sources may be cited as popular examples of a social science phenomenon or concept, e.g., citing slang terms on a popular website or TV show for a linguistics paper. Writers might simply footnote the sources instead of citing them formally.
  • In courses in more practical fields such as business courses, it is more common to cite popular periodicals (especially news sources) and popular books related to business, even in more advanced college courses.

2 Professional sources

These are not real academic sources, but represent higher quality contents among the world of non-academic sources. It is not unusual for such sources to be cited in first-year or second-year college papers, or in certain fields like business, literature studies, or media studies. These sources are written by academic experts, or at least by people with some degree of expertise and professional knowledge in their professional fields, and are written at a college level. They are written by experts for a non-expert but educated audience.

2.1 Characteristics

The author is either (1) a trained academic expert in the field; or (2) a professional expert, i.e., someone who has years of experience and leadership in a profession, such as business, government, journalism, or education.
The intended audience consists of educated readers, usually with some background knowledge of the subject. This can include those working in a particular profession, for whom the piece is written.
The information is of a higher quality and precision. It may be primary or secondary information, or both. It may be primary in the sense that it includes the writer's own expert analysis, or information from investigative research (e.g., news articles). It may be largely secondary, e.g., if the writer is qualified to read and interpret the academic research and explain it to a more general (but educated) audience).
Quality control
If it is a media outlet, they try to hire expert journalists (who have expertise and experience in their area), and they have editors who likewise have professional expertise. For books, the writer is an academic or professional expert, and the editor has enough expertise to oversee the book's publication.

2.2 Examples

  1. Popular books by academic experts. These are written for readers who are not experts, but are educated enough to understand the level of writing; these are generally written at a college reading level for an educated audience (who have a basic background knowledge of the field). Examples include:
    • Stephen Pinker' books on psychology, language, and other issues, e.g., The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works
    • Deborah Tannen's books on gender and communication issues in relationships or in workplaces like You Just Don't Understand and Talking from 9 to 5.
    • Books by scientists to educate the public; e.g., Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.
  2. Specialized periodicals. These are written by people with some degree of expertise and professional skill in their fields, and are written at a college level. Examples include:
    • (a) Magazines like The Economist, Scientific American, National Geographic, Forbes, Business Week
    • (b) World-famous news magazines and newspapers like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post
  3. Trade journals / publications. These are periodicals for people working in a particular profession. The writers have at least some degree of academic or professional expertise, but the articles generally focus on practical issues of those in the profession. The articles are short, and may be a blend of personal, practical, and some research that may be cited. A good example is Chronicle of Higher Education for those working in higher education, Psychology Today for those in various professions, and others like Food Technology, Landscape Architecture.

Less common examples:

  1. An occasional academic lecture video by a professor may be found on sites like Youtube. However, professors grading your papers might find it odd if you cite a video as a source, even if it is a good one.

While these source types are mainly cited in freshman and sophomore papers, in some fields, it is also common to cite such sources in papers at the junior and senior levels; e.g., in some humanities and business classes, one may cite popular periodicals (especially news sources) and popular books related to business, media or fine arts, even in more advanced college courses.

3 Academic sources

These are written by academic experts, and these usually report original research by the authors. They are written for an audience of experts in the field (or at those with enough academic knowledge to understand them). The most common include academic research journals, monographs (books on specific academic topics), and less often, edited volumes. Students will start to read some of these in their junior or senior level classes, and will use them in writing papers in such courses. Graduate students and professors read and use such materials all the time.

3.1 Characteristics

An academic expert--a professor, doctoral student, or academic researcher.
Other academic experts in the field--professors, researchers, graduate students; also, those in government and industry with the academic background to read and use the information
Primary information, specifically, original research and analysis by the authors
Quality control
Strict vetting methods are usually used, namely, a peer review process, to make sure that only good quality research is published.

3.2 Examples

  1. Academic journal. Short journal articles (e.g., 10-30 pages) report new, original research by the authors.
  2. Monograph. This is an academic book on a specific research topic, and often consists of the author's original research on the topic, as well as a summary of current research.
  3. Edited volume. This is an anthology of shorter, separate research papers by different authors on a research topic, published as a one-time book-style collection. This is overseen by an editor. For example, Tannen's Framing in Discourse is edited by Tannen, and contains various papers by Tannen and other researchers about the linguistic structures of conversations.

These kinds of sources have a process of vetting or quality control. Journal articles, for example, have a peer review process to filter out lesser quality articles. A researcher wanting to publish a paper submits it to the journal editor, who then sends it to three expert reviewers (usually professors who are experts in the particular topic). The reviewers give anonymous feedback to the authors and decide to (1) accept it, (2) accept it after having the author make changes, or (3) reject it if it is not suitable or of good quality for the journal.

Other academic sources may not be so good for college students. Students may not have the expertise to understand these, or to discern whether they contain good research or reliable information, as these are often preliminary research; e.g.:

  1. Conference paper - research presented by researchers at academic conferences.
  2. Master's thesis - research by a novice researcher, which may not be of great quality.
  3. Ph.D. dissertation - a large write-up of several hundred pages of one's doctoral research; it is better to see if the author has published part of it as a journal article instead
  4. Unpublished manuscript - unpublished research posted online by a researcher

3.3 Examples of academic journals

Some journals are domestic, i.e., published within a particular country, primarily by and for researchers in that part of the world. Examples of East Asian journals include English Teaching, Journal of Asia TEFL, The Journal of Studies in Language. The better journals are usually major international journals, such as:

  • Psychology: Journal of Experimental Psychology, Psychonomic Bulletin, Psychology Review, Memory
  • Linguistics: Journal of Linguistics, TESOL Quarterly, Journal of Memory and Language
  • Business & economics: Quarterly Journal of Economics, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Financial Economics
  • Natural sciences: Science, Nature, Cell, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Nature Neuroscience
  • Engineering: Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (JASA), Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Nature Nanotechnology, IEEE Wireless Communications, Nano Research
  • Literature: Poetics, New Literary History, Narrative Inquiry, Semiotica, Journal of Victorian Culture, Research in Drama Education, Journal of Biblical Literature, Russian Review, Critical Review, Modern Language Quarterly

3.4 Other characteristics of academic sources

Academic sources, especially academic journals, are characterized by the following.

  • Authors who are academic experts – professors, researchers, and graduate students
  • Specialized contents, style, and language, which requiring at least some basic familiarity with the field, terminology, and concepts
  • Professional or technical tone and style
  • Plain text format, with few or no graphics other than data graphs or technical illustrations
  • Reporting original research by the authors
  • Sources are always cited in the text and usually at the end of each paper
  • Very little or no advertising
  • Some type of filter or quality control for the contents, i.e., peer review; if a researcher wants to publish a paper, it has to be screened and approved by reviewers and/or editors, who are also experts.

3.5 Finding academic sources

The best place to search for academic sources is Google Scholar. See the guide on Google Scholar searches.

3.6 Summary

These source types and their basic characteristics are summarized below.

Criteria Popular Professional Academic
Author Non-expert. Not an academic expert. Not a professional expert Expert. Academic or professional expert Academic expert
Audience General audience Educated audience Academic audience, expert audience
Information Superficial or general. Not in-depth, precise, or accurate. May be secondary, subjective, anecdotal, or even unreliable. Precise, accurate, reliable, though not as in-depth as for academic sources. Secondary information, which is cited at least informally. Maybe primary information, such as from the writer's expertise, analysis, or investigative work. Primary, from original research (scholarly or scientific research). Technical, in-depth, accurate, and precise.
Quality control Few or no quality control mechanisms. Quality control may be concerned with commercial value and basic factuality. Some quality control, such as a knowledgeable or expert editor. Strict quality control, e.g., peer review procedures.

4 See also

  1. Academic versus non-academic writing
  2. Google Scholar searches
  3. Academic versus non-academic sources
  4. Popular sources
  5. Unreliable sources
  6. Professional sources
  7. Academic sources

4.1 Youtube videos

  1. Evaluating sources #1: Introduction
  2. Evaluating sources #2: Popular sources