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SPARK: Types of Sources: Scholarly vs. Popular

A resource for students wanting to improve their academic and research skills.

Types of Sources: Scholarly vs. Popular

Two major types of resources that you may consider using in writing an academic paper are books and journals. Books and articles can be “scholarly” or “popular”; understanding the difference is critical!

As a university student you are a scholar. You are conducting research, thinking critically, and adding to the scholarly conversation through your written work. Your professor is likely to ask you to use scholarly resources, which may include academic books and journal articles written by experts or scholars in a specific field. Professors prefer scholarly sources because they have used rigorous and critical methods.

There are, however, times when popular sources are appropriate. Popular sources, such as magazines and newspapers, are very useful for current commentary on a topic or issue.

Scholarly sources share the following traits:

  • written for a specialized audience that knows the language of the field/subject/discipline
  • researched and written by experts in methodologies of a field/subject/discipline
  • published by an academic publisher or for-profit publisher specializing in resources for university students and faculty
  • have footnotes or endnotes and a bibliography/references/works cited page

Popular sources share the following traits:

  • written for a general audience, with little technical or specialized language
  • written by someone who knows something about the topic but not necessarily an “expert” (e.g., journalist, hobbyist)
  • published by a commercial publisher whose target market is a general audience
  • may contain few or no references

Some publications do not neatly fit into the categories of “scholarly” or “popular”. There are some publications that may be mixed or ambiguous in nature. If you are uncertain about the appropriateness of using a publication for your research, consult your professor or a librarian.