What is an Academic Source?
In your first year at university, you will probably be told by your lecturers and tutors several times to be sure you only use academic sources in your essays. Unfortunately, many students remain confused about what an academic source (or a scholarly source) is exactly and how best to find them. This leads many students to use non-academic sources for their essays (usually online sources) without understanding why they are doing the wrong thing—or how they could improve their grades by changing the types of sources they are using to research and write their essays.
An Academic Source Is…
A source that is research-based, written by an academic and published by a journal, university, university publisher or other reputable publisher. It will usually have been through a peer-review process, either by the journal or the publisher. (You can learn about the peer-review process in our article on the topic.)
In a few cases, you might find the work of an academic published on an independent website, such as their blog. In this case, it is likely to be an opinion piece rather than research, which would mean that it isn’t an academic source. It also wouldn’t have been through any peer-review process.
How Can You Tell if an Author Is an Academic?
One quick trick is to Google the name of the author. If they have the title ‘Dr’, ‘Associate Professor’ or ‘Professor’, then this means they are an academic! This makes anything they write that is also published by a journal, university, university publisher or other reputable publisher an academic source. The first few search results will also usually indicate if they are currently or have ever been employed as an academic by a university, which of course is another way to tell that their work is reputable.
How Can I Tell if a Source Is Peer Reviewed?
Not all academic sources are peer reviewed. While it is best practice to ensure that you only use academic sources in your research and writing of your essays, it is even better to also ensure that those sources are peer reviewed because this will ensure they are of a higher quality and highly regarded in their field. This usually only happens at high-quality journals and university publishers, though many other reputable publishers that often publish educational and academic texts will also have a peer-review process.
Our article on the peer-review process explains in detail how you can find out if a source is peer reviewed. But a quick answer is that for journals, you can limit your search on your library’s catalogue to return only peer-reviewed journal articles. You can assume all university publishers will use a peer-review process. And for other publishers, you can check their website (usually under ‘information for authors’ or ‘submissions’) for information about a peer-review process.
When Can I Use a Non-Academic Source?
There might be cases in which it is acceptable to use a non-academic source, but these will be special cases, and are more common in some academic disciplines than in others.
In politics and international relations, for example, it might be perfectly acceptable to use information published by governments, particular politicians, the United Nations, non-governmental organisations and not-for-profit organisations, like Amnesty International.
In journalism and media studies, of course, you might find yourself often needing to refer to sources in the media, which are certainly not academic sources.
It is generally a good idea to check with your lecturer or tutor first if they are happy for you to use non-academic sources. And if these sources are online, some courses might actually have the requirement that you get these sources approved by your lecturer or tutor prior to using them.
How Best to Find Your Academic Sources
The absolute best way to find academic sources is to physically go to your university library, if you can. That way, you can access the books you need and receive assistance from librarians. Most universities will have discipline librarians that are there to help students in your particular field to find the right academic sources for their research!
Even if you can’t go into the library, you can log in to your library website from anywhere and access electronic sources through the library database. As mentioned above, you can search for journal articles that are peer reviewed. You can also limit your results to just those available electronically, so you can download them and read them wherever you are.
The most important piece of advice academics want to get across to their students at first-year level is usually that they should use the library as their only source of references for their essays and assignments until they have a solid understanding of the types and quality of sources that are acceptable for their discipline. Once you have these skills in place, you can safely venture into the world wide web and be sure that you won’t risk your grades or the quality of your research by relying on inappropriate or inaccurate non-academic sources.