What is a Scholarly Source? Here are 7 Examples

What is a Scholarly Source

This article focuses on examples of scholarly sources to help you to understand what is a scholarly article (you can use ‘article’ and ‘source’ – they mean the same).

Scholarly Source Definition

If you’re anything like the students in my classes, you may find you don’t know the scholarly article definition, or which scholarly sources to reference in an essay.

Many of my students aren’t sure exactly how to reference scholarly sources at all, or how to access scholarly sources that teachers will find acceptable.

You will always need to find your own scholarly articles that will impress your teachers. To do this, you need to keep in mind that some essay sources will always be better than others.

The best essay sources are ‘scholarly sources’.

This is what is considered a scholarly source:

  1. Are written by respectable authors;
  2. Have been properly peer reviewed by experts who have agreed that the information is of high quality; and
  3. Are up-to-date.

So let’s get started with explaining what are scholarly sources by looking at the four best scholarly sources to cite:

The Four Best Scholarly Sources to Cite in an Essay

1. Your Assigned Readings

Start with the assigned readings. These are the scholarly articles, textbooks, and book chapters that your teachers have selected for you to read.

Your teacher will often set scholarly articles as readings for each week.

They will expect you to read them and come to class ready and willing to discuss them. When you read these texts, hopefully you took notes, not the readings.

If you did take notes on your assigned readings, this is one of the first places you should go when planning your paper.

You should write about and analyze the relevant ideas presented in the assigned readings and reference those texts.

The key to referencing good scholarly sources is to start with the sources you’ve been provided by your teacher and then branch out from there.

You should aim for about 50% of your sources to be the assigned readings and 50% to be scholarly articles you found on your own.

Why you Should cite Readings Assigned by your Teacher
The reason assigned readings are top-tier scholarly sources for your paper is that they have been read, checked, and selected by your teacher. The teacher chose those readings because they believed that the sources were the best ones available for learning the course content.

You will also want to cite the assigned readings because it shows you have been paying attention in class and keeping up with the coursework.

Too often, I get students referencing texts that are less relevant than the assigned readings!

They will often reference websites and sources easy to access via google. This gives me the impression that they haven’t really tuned into the subject until it was time to write their assessment task.

The two times you shouldn’t reference the assigned readings are:

  • When the teacher explicitly asks you not to; and
  • When the topic of your paper appears irrelevant to the readings set in class

Otherwise, start with the assigned readings to impress your teacher and show them you’ve been paying attention.

2. A Library Textbook

Textbooks are the first of our two peer-reviewed article types.

How to tell if an Article is Peer Reviewed

Simple: Textbooks and Journal Articles are peer reviewed. Websites and blog posts aren’t.

Textbooks are so underrated.

Textbooks are the most readable scholarly sources available to you. They are specifically designed to be read by undergraduates. The same thing can’t be said about other top-tier scholarly sources like journal articles (notoriously hard to read), reports, and legislation.

Because textbooks are so readable, they should be a go-to scholarly source for developing a foundational understanding of a topic.

If you want to be able to explain a topic or concept well, textbooks are your best friends.

If you’re an on-campus student, I strongly recommend you head to the library and use your library catalog to find the most relevant scholarly literature – and especially textbooks – in your course’s subject area. Type in keywords from your course title and related phrases to find the textbooks that link to the course content.

Go to the library early and check out the books you think you’ll need. The key is to go early – earlier than all your peers!

There are only a limited number of textbooks in the library, and you want to be one of the few students who get their hands on one.

If you’re an online student or you are an on-campus student who missed out on one of the library copies, the best bet is to seek out an e-book.

E-book versions of textbooks are just as high quality and worth citing in your assignment.

Universities are rapidly moving towards having more e-books than hard copies, meaning chances are getting higher and higher that you’ll get access to that e-book you need.

Jump onto your university library catalog from home and search for keyphrases relevant to your topic. You may find some good quality e-books that will work as a treat for your assignment.

One more benefit of e-books is that they’re easy to search through.

If you’re looking through a whole textbook for just one key idea, e-books make it easy for you to search for instances of an exact term or phrase so you can go straight to the relevant paragraphs – no wasting time!

Tip: Textbook Rentals
You might also want to look into Student Textbook Rentals to save money while still accessing quality scholarly sources.

3. A New Journal Article

Nothing beats a journal article for a scholarly source.

That’s because they’ve been through what we call the ‘peer review process.

In other words, experts on the topic have read the article and approved it as a credible and reliable scholarly article worthy of publication. It must be an accurate and rigorous piece of work to be published in a journal!

How Many Journal Articles Should I Cite?
I recommend always citing a high number of scholarly journal articles. I try to aim for journal articles for at least 50% of my references in my reference list.

Something to keep in mind about journal articles is that newer articles are always better.

Aim to cite journal articles that were published within the past 10 years. That said, I often accept a few articles that are a bit older from my students so long as the majority of articles they cite are quite new.

Tip: The Google Scholar ‘Cited by’ Button

One way to find newer articles is to use Google Scholar’s ‘cited by’ button.

Sometimes you find a really good, relevant article but it’s really out of date. To find newer articles on the same topic, you can click the ‘cited by’ button. Up will pop all the scholarly literature that has referred to that old article.

By their very nature, all ‘cited by’ articles will be newer than the one you were reading, and a large number of them will likely be on the same topic.

This method is therefore very useful for making sure you a) follow the paper trail to find new articles on a topic, and b) find a wide range of academic up-to-date articles that you can cite.

4. Assigned Readings from Previous Subjects

This is an untapped gold mine.

Remember that subject you did two years ago that was a bit like the one you’re doing now? Did it talk about similar ideas or theorists?

scholarly sources

If you’re smart, you kept a folder on your computer with all your documents from that subject.

Now’s the time to dig through assigned readings from similar courses you took previously and see if any of the readings from those old subjects are useful scholarly sources that you can cite in your current paper.

Something nice about citing previously assigned readings is that they’re readings that have been provided for you by academics in your teacher’s faculty specifically because they thought the articles were quite good.

In other words, one of your teachers has pre-approved it so you know it’s good!

Another good thing about citing previously assigned readings is that you’ve likely read them before, so they shouldn’t be too hard to re-read. You might also already have notes written in the margins of those journal articles or a document of notes on those articles saved on your computer.

Furthermore, especially in cohort-based degrees, the teachers will be aware that you’re linking ideas from previous courses you studied into your current course. This is a good look: it means you’re engaged, making connections between ideas, and on your way to the top of the class!

Avoid Self-Plagiarism
One thing to keep in mind is that while you’re picking through old notes or articles that might be relevant, make sure you don’t accidentally copy and paste text from old assignments into new assignments. Self-plagiarism is something universities are really cracking down on. Personally, I think it’s a load of Bollocks … how can you steal information from yourself!? But, nonetheless, beware of re-submitting previous work.

Additional Sources that are OK to Cite

5. A Government or Non-Profit Report

Government reports can be great sources if used right.

They’re also really easy to find. They are usually freely available on government and non-profit websites and are accessible through a quick google search.

The trick is to critique government and non-reports, rather than cite them as unquestionable authorities on a topic. Often students assume that because the report is from a government website it’s ‘the truth’.

Remember, governments have agendas.

Conservative governments write reports that “confirm” their point of view. Progressive governments write reports that “confirm” their point of view. There’s always someone at the top commissioning reports that have pre-ordained answers.

Nonetheless, government reports are great to reference. They show how you’re linking ideas to ‘policy’ and ‘real life’. Discussing and analyzing government responses to issues can get you great marks.

Tip: Using Government Reports

Use government reports to show you’ve linked your ideas to real life. But, ensure you critique government documents rather than treating them as the authoritative truth on a topic.

Non-Profits and independent research groups also often have their own agendas but can produce some excellent reports on issues.

If Amnesty International is producing a report, you can bet that it’s going to be skewed towards picking out and highlighting refugee abuses, immigrant rights or issues in developing nations.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing but remember: they’ve got an agenda and they will therefore highlight information that reinforces their own agenda.

An example of very well-respected government reports is the UN’s IPCC reports. These reports on climate change reflect many respected scientists’ reflections on issues and would almost be a must to mention in an article on climate change.

Similarly, government policies on healthcare, education, transportation, agriculture, and so on are all worth discussing and look great in assignments.

Here are some tips when discussing government and non-profit reports:

  • Critique them – examine whether they are backed by other scholarly information you found on Google Scholar or your university library catalog;
  • Discuss their agenda – what is the political skew of the report? What are the political stripes of the government or organization that released it?
  • Find alternative perspectives – is the report challenged by others? What academics or interest groups disagree with the government or non-profit’s findings?

If you keep that active, critical thinking in mind, feel free to use reports from governments or non-profits. They can help you to boost your marks and show your understanding of how research influences policy.

6. A News Report. Seriously!

News reports are not academic texts. They should not be used to present research-based information.

However, news sources like Forbes and The Guardian are great to use for linking your essay’s concepts to current affairs.

All good essays should use examples to show your understanding of a topic and its links to real life. One of the best ways to do this is to reference recent news reports on a topic.

The trick here is to:

  • Firstly, reference a journal article or textbook on the topic. When explaining the key idea, don’t use a news report. Use a journal article or textbook as your source to explain any idea.
  • Then, as your second reference in the paragraph, cite the news report. When it comes time to discuss an example of the topic, you can start your sentence with a simple phrase like: “This idea was recently put into action in …” and reference the news reports at the end of the sentence.

One more place to include a news report is in the introduction of an essay as a hook to engage the reader. Starting an essay with “In a recent news report, …” can engage the reader and show them why a topic is worth discussing.

Remember: Like government reports, the key is to critique news articles, not treat them like authoritative texts.

7. Fake News. Really!

Yes, it can be impressive to reference fake news. As long as you actually show how and why it’s ‘Fake’.

If you manage to find information that is incorrect and has proven to be misleading, you might want to discuss it in your paper.

The reason you can do this and still look impressive is that this shows strong critical thinking skills.

Often, the difference between top students and average students is their ability to wow the teacher with their critical thinking. A student who finds instances of incorrect information and strongly debunks it shows that critical insight is required for top marks.

Tip: Fake News
Exposing fake news can show your skills as a critical thinker.

So next time you’re struggling to think of a way of providing critical insights, find fake news, and then use real scholarly information from journal articles or textbooks to debunk it – your teacher is likely to be very impressed!

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Summing Up

Seven Best Scholarly Sources to Cite in an Essay

All the top students have mastered the skill of referencing very high-quality scholarly sources in their papers.

Your set readings, textbooks, and journal articles should form the core line-up for any good paper.

With those three types of sources as your foundation, you’ll start building your marks and moving to the top of the class.

Action Tip
Aim to reference a set reading, textbook or journal article in each paragraph of your next paper. Make sure you’re seeking out some of these textbooks and journal articles independently using your university’s library catalogue or google scholar.

Once you’ve got those foundations right, start being more adventurous.

Using government, non-profit reports, and news reports can be great if you actively critique them and relate them back to the scholarly literature on the topic: are these ideas supported by independent scholarly research or do they seem biased or untrue?

To sum up, let’s go through our seven impressive sources to cite in your next paper:

7 Best Sources to Cite in Your Essays

  1. Your Set Readings
  2. A Library Textbook
  3. A New Journal Article
  4. Assigned Readings from Previous Subjects
  5. A Government or Non-Profit Report – Critique it
  6. A News Report. Seriously! – Critique it
  7. Fake News. Really! – Critique it

This article is part of a four-part series on explaining exactly what a scholarly source is. You might also like:

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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