Identifying academic sources
When researching a topic for a university assignment, ‘academic’ sources are preferred over other types of writing. They carry more weight and authority, and are likely to be more convincing.
Academic sources are
- Authoritative: academic sources identify the qualifications and expertise of the writer. A source written by a recognised expert in a field is more likely to be trustworthy (although expertise should never be accepted blindly - see evaluating source quality for more).
- Sourced: academic writing is careful to credit the origins of information and ideas, usually by means of a reference list or bibliography.
- Peer-reviewed: other academics have read the source and checked it for accuracy. Before publication in an academic journal, for example, an article is checked by a panel of referees. Academic books are checked by editors and other reviewers.
- Objective: academic sources aim to examine a topic fairly. This does not mean that they never take a side, but that the source does not ignore alternative positions on the topic.
- Written for academics: academic sources target university lecturers, students, and professionals interested in the theoretical side of a topic.
Types of academic source
The most common forms of academic source are
- Journal articles
- Published reports
Sources such as newspaper articles, magazine articles, opinion pieces, and websites are not commonly academic, although there are some exceptions. Many journal articles and reports can be found online, for example.
Academic journals are very different from popular magazines, although they bear several similarities. For more, see what type of source is this?
To identify an academic source, apply the criteria listed above:
- What are the qualifications of the author? Academic authors are likely to come from a university or institute, and academic writing is often published by a university press.
- Are sources listed? Look for a reference list or bibliography.
- Has the writing been peer-reviewed? Peer-reviewed journals will have an editorial board or committee listed, or will provide instructions to authors that describe a standard peer review.
- Is the writing objective? Sources that are blatantly one-sided are unlikely to be academic.
- Who is the target audience? Consider the style of the writing, the presence of advertising, and where you found the source (Massey Library has a more comprehensive selection of academic sources than public libraries, for example).
It can help to consider the purpose of the source. Academic writing aims to inform. It does not aim to sell something, or present one person's opinion independent of evidence or logic.
Primary vs. secondary sources
Primary sources present original and direct evidence. They are usually created by someone with personal experience of something. Common primary sources are historical documents (for example, a transcript of oral history, or interview data), raw data from an experiment, or demographic records.
Secondary sources draw on primary sources. They may comment on primary sources, or use the evidence from primary sources to construct an argument. Books or journal articles that analyse, critique, or synthesise a range of sources are examples of secondary sources.
Primary sources can be useful, as they provide a clear “first-hand account”, but secondary sources have the added benefit of expert analysis and context. Your university assignments are more likely to use secondary sources.