Sources to use and those not to reference in Academic Writing

author By Mary Boies

Professors and instructors usually insist that students only utilize “scholarly sources” in their assignments. Yes, there are good and bad sources for essays and other academic papers.

good and bad sources

Referencing often overwhelms students and even professionals. The process is tedious, requires keenness, and if you are doing it for the first time, it might be tough to wrap your head around it.

You have probably heard the debate on credible vs non-credible sources to include in an essay, research paper, term paper, thesis, dissertation, and other academic assignments. If you are confused about what sources to use, when, and how, you are in the right place.

Having looked at how to use references/sources in an essay, it is now time to distinguish good from bad sources.

Therefore, as you read this article, you should be able to distinguish between scholarly and non-scholarly sources, when and where to use either, and the different types to use.

What is a scholarly source?

Let’s first define a scholarly or credible source.

Most college assignments, repeatedly, require the student to use scholarly sources- those written, critiqued (peer-reviewed), and edited by experts or scholars.

In addition, your professor will always insist that they need you to use credible sources in your essays or papers.

So, what are scholarly sources, and where can they be found?

A scholarly source is a book or article written by professional or academic experts, extensively detailing the new theoretical analysis, research findings, or interpretations, mainly to expand a society’s understanding and knowledge of that subject.

Three features distinguish scholarly sources:

Scholarly sources present comprehensive citations and accurate statistical data so the reader can confirm the proof for any claims made by the authors.

A scholarly source usually is well-sourced, evidence-founded, objective, and authoritative.

The most credible ones don’t evoke an emotional reaction from the reader or attempt to promote or sell anything. They are solely written for the benefit of students and other experts in that particular field.

Scholarly articles get published in journals, usually quarterly or monthly publications on narrow subject areas, hence their name journal articles. However, journals are costly, so most university libraries organize subscriptions for all their faculty members and students. Therefore, this makes it more affordable and easier to access this essential study material.

Features of a scholarly/credible source

There are certain factors and features that distinguish scholarly sources. Let’s have a look.

  1. Authors. The authors usually are academics or researchers that hold important positions at a university or college. They are always mentioned, and their academic credentials (MD, PhD) are also given. The authors report on observations or findings from their original studies.
  2. Language. Scholarly articles use technical language that might involve the usage of several specialized terminologies. The tone employed is usually neutral and serious.
  3. Audience. They are often intended for a narrow audience of experts in the field, researchers, professors, and even students.
  4. Content and appearance. A scholarly article follows a particular structure. It begins with an abstract, which is then followed by the introduction, literature review, and then the methodology section. Next are the findings, discussion, conclusion segments, and references. Statistical graphs are usually the most common featured illustrations, and they are only included to support the content of the article. In addition, there is very little to no advertising done in scholarly articles.
  1. Information checking. Scholarly articles get assessed and edited by other professionals in the field; they are peer-reviewed. Therefore, the research techniques, data accuracy, and strength of analysis standards are quite stringent and must be adhered to.
  2. Location. Several scholarly articles can be found on the open web and accessed via search engines like Google Scholar. Such, however, also include vast quantities of paywall-protected services. So, to save time, you can search for scholarly articles online via your university’s library, which is already subscribed to numerous scholarly sources on your behalf.

Why use credible sources

The credibility and authority of scholarly sources will significantly contribute to the overall quality of your assignment or papers. The usage of scholarly sources is, in fact, an expected aspect of any academic course paper, such as a literature review.

In every discipline, knowledge is created through responding to the discoveries and theories of those that came before us. Scholarly articles are unique because they need authors to record and include confirmable sources of the methods, ideas, and facts they employed to arrive at their conclusions. They also strive to discuss the pros of alternative perspectives and explanations for the stances they take. This makes it much easier to evaluate the truth and the strengths and shortcomings of the various claims made in the article.

In addition, unlike most web-based articles, scholarly articles are structured and designed to offer the elements needed to assess the truth and validity of the author’s assumed position extensively. Most web-based papers for not often give you the chain of evidence needed to evaluate the truth of the provided conclusions.

What is a non-scholarly source?

Non-scholarly sources are articles written by non-professionals or organizations with an unstated or stated bias. Their publications are usually produced by vanity presses, commercial publishers, or other publishers.

Non-scholarly sources mainly entertain and inform the general public. They also allow field specialists to share product information and industry practice.

Examples of non-scholarly sources include documentary films, blogs, newspapers, and magazines. Such sources can provide useful information on ongoing affairs or even basic information that allows you to familiarize yourself with a particular subject. They, however, do not have the evidence, analysis depth, and authority found in scholarly sources.

Features of non-scholarly sources?

  1. Authors. The authors of non-scholarly sources are often freelance writers and reporters. Therefore, their names might not be included in the articles, and their credentials are not mentioned whenever the names appear. Also, the authors of non-scholarly sources did not directly participate in the work, events, or ideas that they are documenting.
  2. Language. The language used is usually non-technical and straightforward. For example, it might be emotive or artistic and professional jargon is not often used.
  3. Audience. Non-scholarly sources are aimed at a broad, general audience, which even includes those individuals that are not familiar with the subject at hand.
  4. Content and appearance. These articles are usually designed and structured to appeal to your interest. For example, they might use captivating headlines, illustrations, eye-catching photographs, and even bold colors. Additionally, the pages feature advertisements and promotions. And unlike scholarly sources, non-scholarly sources do not list references or cite sources.
  5. Information checking. Careful but not thorough, fact-checking is done. The content gets assessed by editors who are often journalists and not professionals in the field.
  6. Location. Many newspapers and magazines can be found online via a simple Google search. You can also find them book stores, grocery stores, and newsstands. These sources are usually much easier to access in comparison to non-scholarly sources.
  7. Popular types. Newspapers, trade magazines, and popular magazines.

Can you use non-scholarly sources when writing academic assignments?

Students often get confused when writing a social science essay about when to use non-scholarly sources such as podcasts, news articles, and blogs.

Even though most tutors and lecturers are often against using such sources, there are a few exceptions on when they can be used.

Clarified below are some of these exceptions and a few pitfalls to avoid when using non-academic sources in your paper.

An important thing that you first need to be aware of is that scholarly sources should always form the backbone of your paper.

That said, non-scholarly sources should only be used to complement the academic sources; they should never substitute your scholarly sources. This should be displayed in your paper’s bibliography or reference list. Conversely, you should not use academic sources at the expense of non-scholarly ones.

Primarily, this is because of one of the main principles of scholarly writing, also called academic writing; the starting or opening point of any book, student essay, or journal article is always to focus on what already exists on the given topic.

What have other academics written about it, and how will your essay or article build on the existing knowledge?

Concerning the hierarchy of knowledge claims, academic research (the ones carried out by university-trained personnel within a university’s institutional framework and then reviewed by fellow academics before publication) is considered the highest and best quality. Therefore, it is only on such foundations that your dissertation or essay will be deemed to be a sound piece of writing.

Remember that not all academic articles make it through the peer-review process. This is a strict quality control method conducted by professionals in a specific field of study. It ensures that whatever knowledge claims and data published in the article are reliable and accurate.

Also Read: How to read effectively in university or college.

5 Scholarly sources to use in an essay and assignments

Now that we know the distinction between scholarly and non-scholarly sources let us check out some examples of credible sources you can use when writing your academic assignments.

1. Assigned readings

Your assigned readings are the best type of scholarly sources to use in an essay. At the beginning of every semester, professors usually give a course outline complete with assigned readings.

The assigned readings often include credible or reputable book chapters, textbooks, and scholarly articles. Students are ideally supposed to read them during the semester to better grasp the concepts and issues in the courses they are taking.

Therefore, when you get an essay assignment, the best sources to use in the essay are the related assigned readings.

One or two of them will indeed have all the information you need for your essay. All you need to do is to get the information you need and provide the necessary citations in your essay.

Your professor will quickly recognize the assigned readings when they read your essay. They will be happy that you took your time to research and write your essay correctly instead of Googling the topic and rewriting one of the top results. Their happiness will be reflected in the grade they will give you.

2. Library textbooks

Reputable scholars write most library textbooks, and they are often peer-reviewed. Therefore, if you cannot find the information you are looking for in your additional readings, you should look for the information in library textbooks. The good thing about looking for information in library textbooks is that most libraries have all their books in an online database. This means finding a book is easy – you go on the database and get the specific location to find the book you want.

Using library textbooks to find information is something professors really like. This shows that you worked hard to find reliable information in your essay. It is also something that professors like because library textbooks usually have more comprehensive information and details when compared to some articles.

To ensure you get the library textbook(s) you are looking for in your college library, you should visit the library early. This will ensure you get a copy of limited copies in the library. You should look for an electronic copy if you do not find a physical copy. Many libraries have digitized versions of the textbooks they have. Therefore, when you do not see a physical copy of the library textbook you are looking for, you should go for an electronic copy.

Electronic library textbooks are just as good as conventional ones.

3. Scholarly journal articles

Scholarly journals are often the most preferred scholarly source, especially among professors teaching nursing, health management, and medical courses. This is because articles almost always must be peer-reviewed before they are published in reputable journals.

The peer-review process involves the examination of articles by experts in the field to ensure it is accurate and thorough. Because articles published in scholarly journals are peer-reviewed, it means the information contained in them is factual, credible, and reliable.

To get good marks for citation in your essay, you should ensure that about half of your sources comprise peer-reviewed journal articles from reputable journals.

Your professor will be impressed if you find and cite relevant journal articles in your essay. Using such sources usually means that the author has done thorough research using a reliable database.

When searching for journal articles from scholarly journals to use in your essay, you should make sure the ones you use are recent (not more than ten years old). This is because older journal articles are sometimes less reliable than new ones.

Moreover, you should also make sure you only get information from journal articles in reputable journals. Reputable journals are those that are peer-reviewed and indexed.

You can check the references of the journal articles to identify other scholarly journal articles written about your topic. On Google Scholar, you can click the “cited by” button to yield new articles that are relevant to your paper or essay.

4. Government reports and non-profit reports

In addition to scholarly sources, there are non-scholarly sources that you can also use in your essay. Government reports are the best non-scholarly sources to use in your essay. The reason why is that they are almost always reliable. This is because experienced technocrats usually author them in government agencies.

Non-profit reports are the second-best non-scholarly sources to use in your essay. This is because they are often produced by experts. However, there is a small issue with non-profit reports. Not all non-profits are credible/reputable. Thus, you should ensure a non-profit is reputable before using its report or reports in your essay.

One of the most important things to have in mind if you use government or non-profit reports in your essay is that you should use them as supporting sources rather than primary sources. When you do this, your professor will not mind them.

In other words, the best way to use non-scholarly sources such as government reports is to use them to confirm, support, or back other sources.

5. News reports

News reports by reputable news organizations are considered reputable sources. Therefore, you can use them in your essay unless expressly told not to use them. However, since they are reputable but not scholarly sources, you should only use them sparingly. They should only feature in your essay if you do not have scholarly sources to use.

As is the case with using government reports and nonprofit reports in your essay, you should keep in mind that there are non-reputable news organizations out there. This means that when considering using a news report, you should only go ahead and use it if it is from a reputable news organization.

Sources not to use in an essay

It is a no-brainer that you should only use scholarly sources in your essay. The only non-scholarly references you should include in your essay are reputable, e.g. government reports, nonprofit reports, and news reports. All other non-scholarly sources should not feature anywhere in your essay.

Below are some of the most popular non-scholarly sources that students use in essays but should never be in essays. You are, however, allowed to use these sources when familiarizing yourself with a topic, concept, or theory. Still, you should find credible sources to cite in your research paper and essay write-ups.

1. Wikipedia

You should not use Wikipedia as a source in your essay because it is an information website that anybody, including non-experts, can edit. In short, please do not use it since it cannot be reliable. Instead, you should only use it for general knowledge.

2. YouTube Videos

Do not use YouTube as a source in your essays. This is because anybody can post a video on YouTube claiming to be factual or having done the research. Do not trust anyone online. Find your information from reliable sources.

3. Random websites

You should not get information from random websites. As mentioned above, do not trust anyone online. People often lie or present incorrect information as information for personal gain. Find your information from reliable sources.

Summing up

Finding a good source for an essay or academic writing can be challenging. Not anymore!

Following this article from the beginning to this end, you now know the difference between scholarly and non-scholarly sources. Strictly use scholarly sources in your essay. If you must use non-scholarly sources, ensure they are not your primary sources.

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