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What is an Academic Source?

Students often think they know how to research effectively. However, there is more to academic level research than using search engines and picking any result. It is important to use academic sources to obtain information.

An academic source, also known as a scholarly or peer reviewed source, is a source written by experts or authorities in a specific field of study. These are usually found in academic journals, but books and reports can also be considered academic sources.

Academic sources give more credibility and reliability than sources written by those who are not experts in a field of study. Academic sources have also been through a peer review process, which means other experts have evaluated the work and determined it to be of good quality.

Identifying Academic Sources

It is not always easy to identify academic sources. Students often think they have found a reliable source in a newspaper, magazine, or on a website and automatically assume it is the same quality as an academic or scholarly source. However, this is not the case.

Unlike popular non-academic sources, academic sources are heavily researched and written by the people who know the subject best. They are usually referred to as experts or authorities. These people have studied the subject matter for many years, holding high academic degrees in the field.

An author’s credentials are important because they need to have the expertise for the subject so they can provide the best information on the subject. For example, someone with a PhD in Mathematics would not write an academic article about Jane Austen because they do not have the expertise and experience to do so. Likewise, someone with a PhD in History would not write an article for a medical journal.

Academic articles always have a list of resources, known as a bibliography, works cited, or reference page. This list of references tells the reader where the author found their information. The reason for this is twofold: it allows readers to find more information on the subject and gives the author more credibility since they can source their information. This information will usually include more details about the source, such as what journal the article is from or what section of a book it is referencing.

The structure of academic journals

A diagram showing the structure of academic journals

It is also important to note the publishers of academic sources. Publishers have standards that authors have to meet before their articles get published. This includes the peer review process. If the publisher is known to publish reliable articles, then it is likely the publisher would not publish an inaccurate article. Researching the publisher and knowing the publisher’s reliability provides insight into the accuracy, reliability, and credibility of the article.

Academic Sources Features

  • Are often within an academic journal
  • Are found physically or digitally through libraries and aggregated databases (such as ProQuest, ERIC, and JSTOR)
  • Feature credible, academic authors
  • Usually feature an abstract, preview, or summary of the article
  • Often reveal any author biases or errors
  • Cite and provide sources both within the article and at the end in a reference section

Examples of Academic Sources

There are endless examples of academic sources. The sources below are examples of good scholarly sources.

‘Unraveling University-Community Engagement: A Literature Review’ written by Anouk Koekkoek, Maarten Van Ham, and Reinout Kleinhans, featured in the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement.

  • Written by experts and includes their backgrounds to establish their credibility
  • Found within an aggregated database (ERIC)
  • Featured in a reputable journal (Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement)
  • Published by the University of Georgia, a known academic institution
  • Includes an abstract
  • The authors cite their sources throughout and at the end of the article

The book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes written by Jonathan Rose.

  • Written by Jonathan Rose, a professor of history
  • Published by an academic publisher, Yale University Press
  • The author cites sources within the book and at the end of the book in a reference list

Choosing Academic Sources

To find an academic source, it is first important to know where to look. While academic sources can be found using regular search engines, it is easier to go directly through a library or aggregated database to search for academic sources. Libraries and databases compile a variety of peer reviewed articles, books, and other sources. Be careful, because not every source in a library or database is academic. For example, EBSCO, ERIC, and JSTOR are three databases that host peer reviewed sources.

The next important thing in finding an academic source is to consider keywords. These are words to use to find information. If someone is writing a research paper about dolphins, possible keywords might include ‘dolphins,’ ‘sea creatures,’ and ‘aquatic mammals.’ To narrow the search, someone may use keywords for a specific type of dolphin, such as ‘Bottlenose Dolphin.’ The more specific the keywords, the more exact the results.

It can be helpful to make a mind map to find more specific keywords. For example, if the main topic is ‘dolphins,’ possible branches off to more specific parts of the map might be things like ‘types,’ and ‘locations.’ Then, the branches off of these topics might be things like ‘bottlenose dolphin’ and ‘pacific ocean.’

An example of a mind map used to find keywords

An example of a mind map

Lesson Summary

An academic source, also known as a peer reviewed or scholarly source, is a source (usually an article or book) written by an expert in a field of study that has been through a rigorous peer review process. These sources can usually be found through libraries and databases and should feature a list of resources, known as a bibliography, works cited, or reference page.

To find an academic source, it is important to use the right keywords. Keywords are words specifically used to search for a subject. Using multiple keywords gives more results. For example, while ‘car’ is a good keyword, someone will find even more results if they also search for ‘automobile.’

To know if a source is academic or not, it is important to consider a few things. Is the author an expert with an academic degree in the subject matter? Is the publisher credible? Does the source have citations throughout and at the end in a reference list? Was the source found within a library or database? Is there an abstract or summary? Does the source reveal any author biases or conflicts or interest? If the answer to most of these questions is “yes,” then the source is likely academic.

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