Determining if a Resource is Scholarly

Determining if a Reference is a Scholarly Reference

Introductory Thoughts...

        I know that I am not alone as an professor in stating this topic is one of my biggest frustrations as a professor!! This is becoming increasingly true as more & more students use the internet to obtain sources for their class papers. Not using appropriate references can also be a reason for losing points on an otherwise well written paper.

        Recently, I have received many papers with not only had some sources which were not scholarly, but had no sources which were scholarly! Frequently, this occurs when students do not take the proper time to plan for a paper. I was a pretty good procrastinator while I was in graduate school the first time. However, I always made sure that I had my resources well in advance. Then I was able to procrastinate writing the project and still write a good paper (thought not as good as if I had not procrastinated at all). If you wait to the last minute, you will frequently not be able to find enough scholarly resources.

        For most professors, a minimum of 8 sources from outside of class is typical for a scholarly paper. While this shouldn't be difficult to obtain, even if you only have access to a educational library with minimal resources, you will need to allow for time to track these sources down.

        One good prefatory rule of thumb: If you are not sure if a source is scholarly, ask your instructor! Most instructors will be happy to briefly look at a source or listen to a description in order to help you determine if a source is scholarly. They certainly prefer this to giving you a bad grade for not using appropriate sources.


Can I Use Non-Scholarly Sources?

        This is a good, but difficult question. It's best to check with your instructor before using any of these sources. My answer is generally yes, but it won't count toward your minimum number of resources. I will then add the caution to not rely on these resources for much of your information. These sources can quickly "water-down" your paper. Additionally, be aware that they often have inaccurate, out-dated, or over-simplified information which may add to your confusion about the topic at hand.

        In general, its best to avoid these altogether if possible. However, if you do choose to use them be sure to do so wisely and cautiously.


Where to Find Scholarly Resources

        The best place to find scholarly resources is through at college, university, medical library or other educational library. Most public libraries do not contain many scholarly references and those which are available are not as likely to be up-to-date. Academic libraries are designed to meet the needs of scholars making this is the best place to look. Generally, you'll save time by driving a little further to a scholarly library instead of searching a public library with limited resources.

        School library are increasingly providing many good, scholarly resources through the web. Generally these are accessible through your home computer with a password. When you start at a new school, it is good to quickly become familiar with these resources. It will save you time and frustration.

        In general, most scholarly resources are not available for free. If you find a free web resource, then you may want to do some double checking to make sure it's scholarly. Your school generally pays a substantial amount of money for you, your professors, and other students to have access to these online resources. This is why they are password protected.


Journals versus Magazines

        Rarely are magazine scholarly. If you can find the periodical at your local Barnes and Noble, it's probably intended for a more lay audience. If you are unsure you may want to take into consideration the peer review and intended audience factor discussed below.

        There are some interesting exceptions, though. Some professional organizations provide newsletters or magazine style publications which are scholarly. The most common example is the APA Monitor. Another is the Perspectives magazine of the Association for Humanistic Psychology (click here to see AHP Perspectives on the web for an example). While these may be considered scholarly, you still want to use them sparingly. These are articles "in brief" and generally are not as in depth as a journal article. If you rely too much on these your professor will become suspicious that you may be trying to avoid doing the work of the paper.


Web Pages

        Most web pages, even when they are developed by scholars, are not scholarly sources. Again, you are going to want to take a look at the questions of intended audience and peer review discussed in more detail below. In brief, for a web page to be scholarly it should be intended for a professional audience and be peer-reviewed. Below I provide examples of two web sites which I constructed which are NOT scholarly resources and one which is a scholarly resource. Take a brief look at each one of these sites and see if you can determine why the first two websites are not scholarly and why the third website is scholarly.


Non-Scholarly Websites:


Scholarly Website:


        The first website you will quickly notice is written primarily for a lay audience. It was written by a scholar (Ph.D., person in academia) so it appears to be a scholarly source. However, it is not written for a scholarly audience.

        The second website is a bit trickier. While it has some information which is intended for a lay audience, it is primarily written for students and scholars interested in learning more about existential theory. It is written by a scholar (Ph.D., person in academia) for a professional audience. So why is it not scholarly? The key is that it is not peer reviewed. Anyone with a degree can publish a website for other professionals. This doesn't make it a scholarly source.

        The third website also has some tricks. This is a free resource and most free resources are  not scholarly. Some of this website is written for a lay audience, so doesn't that mean it is not a scholarly source? Yes and no. The section written for consumers would not be scholarly. However, the sections written for students and professionals would be scholarly. It has a professional audience and IS peer reviewed.

        However, some of the information on this site would be comparable to a professional magazine (such as The APA Monitor or AHP Perspectives) which you would want to use sparingly. Others, such as the articles, would be a more traditional scholarly resource. (Note: as this site is still in development there are limited examples to illustrate these differences).

        Being free doesn't banish a source to the non-scholarly land. Because academia needs money to continue its interests, it is difficult to provide many free resources while promoting good scholarship. Oftentimes, free resources are those which are published free to avoid the peer-review process or which were rejected through the peer review process. However, this isn't always the case. There are some altruistic providers of information left!


Self Help Books

        Self help books are NOT scholarly resources. Yes, they are written by scholars. Often they may even be written by scholars who are in academia, have written academic books, and are well-respected in their field. But self-help books are written for a lay audience. Additionally, while some self-help books are written by scholars, many are not. While it's just a personal opinion, there are very, very few books in the self-help sections of books stores that are useful beyond being expensive toilet paper! More often than not they create as many problems as solutions!


What Makes a Person a Scholar?

        A degree does not make a person a scholar or a credible person to write on a topic. Additionally, the lack of a particular degree does not disqualify them from being a scholar. A scholar, in the sense of someone who produces a scholarly work, is someone who has established expertise in the content area they are writing about. For example, I am not qualified to write a scholarly work on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I took a class on this in graduate school and have read several books on this topic, however; I have not kept up to date on the literature and this is not an area of expertise.

        However, I am qualified to write a scholarly work on existential therapy or religious/spiritual issues in psychotherapy. I have obtained specialized training and obtained appropriate experience in this content area to be considered someone with expertise on these topics.

        Many sources place degrees behind the authors name to appear scholarly. However, the degree may be in a field not even related to the topic they are writing about! Furthermore, even if the degree is in the same general field, it does not guarantee they are an expert on the topic they are writing about.

        Three keys to determining if a person has an appropriate background is 1) appropriate knowledge, 2) appropriate training, and 3) appropriate experience.


No Author Issues

        If you can't find an author's name, in particularly in the context of an internet resource, be suspicious. It is rare that a source without a clearly stated author is scholarly. There are some scholarly works in which the author is an organization (the APA Style Manual, for example), but this is different than not having an author.


Audience Issues

        A key question to ask when determining if a source is scholarly is "who was the book/article written for?" A scholarly resource is written for a scholarly audience. In general, this would be other professionals or students training to become professionals. If it was written for a lay audience, it is not scholarly.


The Peer Review Question

        This is maybe the most important question in determining if a resource is scholarly. Has it been reviewed and approved by a group of peers? The two most common examples are books and journals. Books written for a professional audience are reviewed by peers selected through the publishing company prior to being accepted for publication. While some books may be self-published and avoid the peer review process through this manner, it is rare that this happens. Journal articles are submitted to be reviewed by editors who are experts in the field.

        The idea behind the peer review process is to assure that these works are quality works consistent with the standards of the field. The idea of standards of the field is a controversial one. This is particularly true when it is recognized that most of the great changes in the field were due to ideas which were not consistent with these very standards. However, the idea of peer review is to attempt to prevent the promotion of ideas such as the rebirthing technique which lead to the death of a client (click here to see article on the child who died from rebirthing therapy).


Developing Balance

        If you are to use non-scholarly resources, the key is balance. Don't use them as a primary text which you build your paper around. Rather, use them sparingly as supplemental texts. It is also recommended to identify in some way that these are not scholarly texts. For example, when referring information from a self-help book, note that the book is a self-help book. If referring information on a professional's website that is not scholarly, note that this is a professional's own website. This will help the reader/instructor identify the source for what it is.

        As an instructor, it is very frustrating when I get to the end of a fairly well written paper to find that there were few, if any, scholarly sources used. This is even more frustrating when the author did not make it clear as to the type of sources they were using in the paper.

        The reason this is such an important issue is because if falls within the domain of academic integrity. As a student, your commitment is to learn to become a professional. This is done by learning to read and appropriately use scholarly resources. One of the reasons why professors have you write papers is to test your abilities to successfully master this task.


Tricks That Professors Make Instructors Cringe

The Unrelated Scholarly Reference

        Occasionally, students will attempt to use "filler resources" to meet the minimum requirements. For example, a student is writing a paper on spirituality and psychotherapy, but doesn't want to spend much time in the library. They've got several books which have been influential on their spiritual development at home and some psychology books. So, the student gets one, good article on spirituality and psychotherapy. They fill in the rest of the paper with references to other scholarly psychology books and scholarly religious books that don't have anything to do with spirituality and psychotherapy. Technically the paper requirements were met, but the 'spirit of the assignment' was avoided.


The Forced Reference

        Preparing a paper can be a lot of work, so it becomes tempting to cut corners. One way this is done is that students will 'force' a few references. For example, a paper requires 5 scholarly resources. The student waits until the night before to write the paper, but gather 5 journal articles. Due to waiting to the last minute, they didn't have time to read all the articles and get the paper done. So they read two articles and write the paper. After completing the paper they go back and read the abstract from the other papers and find a place to "force" an idea or reference.

        Occasionally, the forced reference is one sentence or paragraph that just isn't connected to the theme or flow of the paper. These are really easy for instructors to recognize in the grading process.

        Another trick is to just tack a reference on with another reference. For example, Hoffman (2004) is an important reference in the paper that is frequently utilized. One one of the citations they add (Hoffman, 2004; Smith 2000). In another place they include (Hoffman, 2004; Robertson, 1997). The Smith and Robertson are not used elsewhere in the paper.


Some Example Situations


Oprah in a Scholarly Paper: Three Examples

        Example 1: A student turns in a paper on Myths About Eating Disorders which required 3 scholarly resources. Oprah had three psychologists, all who were professors at prestigious schools, talk about eating disorders. The student uses turns in the paper with 5 references listed: Oprah, the 3 psychologists, and Dr. Phil from his show. Does this meet the requirements?

        Example 2: A student turns in a paper on Myths About Eating Disorders which required 3 scholarly resources. Oprah had three psychologists, all who were professors at prestigious schools, talk about eating disorders. The student uses turns in the paper with 5 references listed: Oprah, the 3 psychologists, and Dr. Phil from his show. The student also referenced 3 journal articles on eating disorders. These are all referenced in one paragraph with one sentence devoted to the journal article.  Does this meet the requirements??

        Example 3: A student turns in a paper on Myths About Eating Disorders which required 3 scholarly resources. At the beginning of the paper, the student talks about the Oprah show, reference the different speakers, in order to illustrate what public discourses on eating disorders are like. After the first two paragraphs discuss this and the student occasionally refers back to the Oprah show through the rest of the paper. However, in the rest of the paper, the student uses two journal articles and a book (written for therapists). These resources form the basis for the central thesis of the paper. Does this meet the requirements??

        Discussion: Let me begin by saying I'm actually someone of an Oprah fan. I haven't watched many of her shows, but in what I've seen she doesn't some great things. Dr. Phil, on the other hand, I have many concerns about. But just because Oprah is a good show with helpful information doesn't make her material scholarly.

        By now, hopefully it is very evident that the first example does not meet the requirements of a scholarly paper. Even if the students voice on this topic sounds scholarly, they have not appropriately supported their ideas with the work of other professionals in the field.

        In the second example, the student technically met the requirements. However, they met the requirements by using one of the above mentioned 'tricks.' Oprah and her crew of non-scholarly resources were the basis for the paper, not the scholarly references. This is a paper not likely to receive a good grade.

        The third example is an excellent usage of a non-scholarly source in a scholarly paper. If done correctly, this can add to the quality of the paper. What makes it a good usage is several factors. First, it is not the primary source used to build the thesis or majority of the content in the paper. Rather, the material was used for a specific, focused purpose. The student was trying to help understand how public discourse on the eating disorders impacts how it is understood. Using Oprah as an example of how eating disorders are discussed in the public domain is a good illustration. But the illustration is not the basis of the paper, it is an example built into the paper.


Consequences of Getting Around the Requirements

        Some students become very skilled at getting around requirements. Most instructors catch on to this rather quickly. Partially, because they remember what it was like in graduate school. But getting around the requirements will generally still impact the skilled requirement bender. Generally, this will affect the grade on the paper at hand. However, this is often the not the place where it most impacts. Instructors will use this information when it comes to writing letters of recommendations and serving as references. Cutting corners can have its cost.

        Maybe the most concerning aspect of cutting corners is the long term patterns set in place. As a graduate clinical psychology professor, I have some concerns about what will happen when the student who cuts corners is a therapist in the field. What happens when they are working with a client beyond their expertise? Will they cut corners and not get the training, supervision, and/or consultation they need to work with this client??

        Learning to distunguish scholarly and unscholarly sources is an important part of becoming a scholar and a professional. This page should just be the beginning of this process. You'll also need experience and continued learning about this issue. Students may also be interested in Using the Web in Academic Settings.




American Psychological Association (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological

        Association (5th. ed.). Washington, DC: author.

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