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English 101: Scholarly vs. Popular Sources

A research guide for English 101 students

Scholarly vs. Popular (or Non-Scholarly) Sources

Throughout your studies, you may see you instructors requesting that you use scholarly sources in your research assignments. Or if not, you probably will. Before we explore the library website and databases, let’s take a deeper look at what makes a scholarly source and how it differs from a popular source. While scholarly sources come in different forms, you will primarily see them as books and peer-reviewed journals and articles. So, what does it mean when an article is peer-reviewed? A peer-review article is an article that has gone through an evaluation process where other scholars in the author’s field of study critically assess the quality of the work before it is published. 

5 Characteristics of a Scholarly Article

It may not always be clear right away if a source is scholarly or not. Here are 5 that make up a scholarly source. 

  • Author
    • Popular sources are normally written by journalists or other non-professionals, or sometime no author is named. People whose main job is to summarize ideas or event sin an easily understandable format; Scholarly sources are written by experts (scholars, researchers, professors, other specialists) - people with an in-depth knowledge of the subject they are writing.
  • Audience
    • Popular sources are written for a broad, general audience. They are written to be understood by a general audience. Scholarly sources are written by specialists for specialists. They tailor to a much narrow, focused audience. 
  • Appearance
    • Popular sources usually need to compete for attention, which typically includes colorful, flashy presentations, lots of pictures, as well as advertisements. Scholarly sources are usually plain, with dense black-and-white text, with some tables, graphs, or charts. If there are advertisements, they are minimal  
  • Content
    • Popular sources tend to be used for entertainment or stay informed on current events. There are also a lot of opinion pieces in popular sources. Scholarly sources are all about objectivity. They will use jargon specific to their field of study, and report on research and news from the field. 
  • References
    • Scholarly sources are virtually required to have long lists of supporting references and complete citations, popular writers don’t usually list the sources they consulted, or if they do, it is usually in an indirect way. 

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