Scholarly sources Scholarly sources, including peer reviewed articles, are written by experts in the field to be read by experts and students diving into a topic. As students, you read these to begin on your path to becoming an expert. Popular sources are intended for a general audience that does not necessarily have in-depth knowledge of the field nor necessarily want it. If you are working on an academic project, reread your assignment or ask your professor if you are only supposed to use peer-reviewed or scholarly information.
“Peer reviewed” and “scholarly” are terms often used interchangeably when talking about information, especially by companies that compile articles into databases such as EBSCO or ProQuest. Let’s unpack that a little to see why. A peer reviewed article is an article that was sent by the authors to a journal’s editors. The editors don’t just say, “Looks good” and publish it. Rather, they send it out to a number of experts in the field. Most often, those experts do not know who wrote it and the authors do not know who is reviewing their work. This is called double blind peer review since the author cannot “see” the reviewers and the reviewers cannot “see” the author. The reviewers scrutinize everything by asking many questions such as:
- Did the authors do a substantial literature review?
- Did the experiment, survey or whatever they used actually result in answering the question they asked?
- Did the authors collect the data correctly and ethically?
- Was their analysis of the data logical?
- Did the conclusions they made follow from the data?
If researchers stated that their goal was to determine if human behavior influenced a monarch butterfly’s migration path and the researchers only measured how many caterpillars were found in a local canyon, the peer reviewers would call foul. Or perhaps, the peer reviewers noticed that the authors/researchers failed to include in their literature review a recent study that investigates the same question. Maybe the writing was confusing and needed clarification. The reviewers would send the article back to the editors who would inform the researchers that a weakness was found in their article and it would need to be corrected. The authors/researchers rewrite, send it to the editors who send it for review by peers and the process is started anew.
That, more or less, is the peer-review process for journal articles and the resulting product would be scholarly information. How many of us have been told by a professor to rewrite? It happens to all of us just as it happens to authors during the peer-review process. Most often works submitted for peer review are research articles. Those articles, no matter the field of study (e.g. medicine, anthropology, biophysics, sociology…) meet the rigors of the scientific method. When reading those articles, look for not only a literature review that could identify other articles and books you could use for your paper/project, but also methodology used in the experiment, data, analysis, conclusions and ideas for further study. Keep in mind that peer-reviewed information is scholarly, but not all scholarly information is peer reviewed.
Scholarly information also includes the writings, lectures and such of acknowledged experts in a field. For example, if Stephen Hawking had written an article for Scientific American musing about his thoughts about the development of artificial intelligence or if Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote a piece about the triangle trade for the journal American History, the editors would likely publish these renowned scholars. Although the articles would not be peer reviewed, they too could be considered scholarly information since Hawking and Gates are acknowledged experts in their fields. Often scholarly journals packed with peer-reviewed articles may have a “thought piece” or essay from someone in the field that is not peer reviewed. When we discuss using databases, we will talk about how to pull out scholarly information, but as just mentioned, most databases will blur that line between peer reviewed and scholarly. Another source of scholarly, but not peer-reviewed information is found in good encyclopedias. A good encyclopedia will have each encyclopedic article signed by the author so the reader (you) can determine if the author is credible. Books too can be scholarly and the same holds true: you know who the authors and/or publishers are and can determine if they are credible.
Popular information comes to us differently than the journey peer-reviewed information takes. For example, journalists or reporters come up with an idea for an article or are given an assignment to write one. They submit their article to the editors. The editors of the periodical make the call if it is to be published often after it has been fact checked and edited for clarity. That is the traditional explanation of popular information, but we also need to include blogs and many websites which boast no editors at all. Often they are not written by journalists trained in research and who abide by journalistic professional ethics. That leaves the fact checking to us. Remember that one of the questions we ask ourselves when looking for information is how are we going to use it? Perhaps a blog is just dandy for what you need: perhaps not.