How to Find Good Scholarly Sources

This post is part of “The Cafe Scholar’s Guide to Writing a Research Paper” series, which walks you through the process of writing awesome research papers step by step from start to finish. When you are done finding great scholarly sources, be sure to check out the rest of the series!

When your professor assigns a research paper, she might tell you “only use scholarly sources.” (If she doesn’t, she just expects you to already know this.) For any college level research paper, the only sources you should use are academic or scholarly sources – sources written by scholars (people with academic training and research in a specific field), for scholarly purposes (not popular consumption). You’ve probably heard that Wikipedia is not a good scholarly source. So, what are good academic sources, and how do you find them?

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

How to Find Scholarly Sources for your Research Paper

What is a good scholarly source?

A good scholarly source is typically a journal article, essay, dissertation, book, or book chapter (but not any book will do!).  Here are are few characteristics of good scholarly or academic sources.

Scholarly Sources are Peer Reviewed

This means that while one scholar or a group of scholars did the research, wrote the source, etc., before publication it was reviewed extensively by other scholars in the field (the author’s peers) to make sure the work is up to snuff. So you don’t even have to decide if it is an appropriate source: those peer reviewers have done it for you.

Good Scholarly Sources have Extensive Bibliographies

Good sources cite good sources! It will be very easy to tell where the writer/researcher got his information, because it should all be clearly cited. A bibliography is the evidence for the research performed, credit where credit is due, and a resource for further study. In fact, we are going to use them below to find good sources, too.

Good Scholarly Sources are Written for an Academic Audience

They are not written for popular consumption. So, a magazine article you find in the grocery store, or a blog post, typically will not be a scholarly source. (There are exceptions, because there are magazines and blogs written for academics too, but typically these formats are not going to work as well for your research).

Some Exceptions:

Review Articles or Abstracts:

These are written for an academic audience, but they are a summary or commentary on the research rather than the research itself. When you see one of these that looks interesting, drill down and use the original source rather than the abstract or review. You might use a review alongside a particular source if the review challenges the source or looks at in a different way, but don’t use it in place of the original source.

Textbooks and Encyclopedias:

These are written for an academic audience, but they are tertiary sources (research about research), and they are generally written as an overview rather than for research purposes. These are another good place to find scholarly sources, but you will want to read the article or chapter for a general overview and then look at the bibliography to find sources to use. Note: There are some “encyclopedia” type books that actually contain peer reviewed articles that will be great sources. This caution is more for the general overview type encyclopedias. If in doubt, check with your professor.

What is NOT a good scholarly source?

Aside from the items noted above, there are a few things that are generally not considered scholarly sources except in certain contexts: fiction, Scripture, and popular media not intended for a scholarly audience.
These sources are not written for academic purposes, so they won’t generally make a good source unless you are using them as a primary source. If you are writing a research paper about Jane Austen, her books would be primary source material. The same would apply if you are writing a paper about a biblical topic. (Look out for a future post on good academic sources for religion classes!)
Most non-academic websites or anything where the author is not clear should be avoided too.

Does the writer’s discipline matter?

It depends. Different disciplines (history, religious studies, theology, geography, sociology, political science) often touch on the same subject, but they ask different types of questions. If you are writing a paper for an interdisciplinary class, you can look for sources from a variety of disciplines, but some fields look specifically for scholarly sources from their own field. History papers, for example, should typically cite historians but not necessarily sociologists or political scientists. If in doubt, check with your professor.

Where to Find Good Scholarly Sources:

Ask your Professor!

Current and former professors who have studied your research topic might make a connection to a source that you wouldn’t know. When you are discussing your research paper proposal with your professor, ask if they have anything they would recommend. After that, though, I wouldn’t go back to your professor for recommended sources until you have exhausted the items below and are stuck…do your own legwork first.

Librarians are trained scientists!

Ask your Librarian!

Librarians actually go to school to study research! They are a great resource, not just for finding things inside your library, but sources at other libraries, etc.

Your School’s Article Database

If you haven’t checked out your school’s article database, you should. This is where you will probably find most of the good sources for a research paper. Articles are shorter and easier to digest than books, they typically have abstracts to help you get an idea of the usefulness of the source, they may reflect more recent research (check the dates), and often they are available electronically. Check with your library’s website on how to access the database. Libraries often have workshops or tutorials on using Boolean search terms to search effectively. JSTOR is one of my favorite databases to use.

E-books from your school’s Library:

Schools that have strong online offerings tend to have extensive e-book collections available via the school library’s website. Typically you can filter your library search by “e-book” if a trip to the physical library is out of the question. Sometimes they can be downloaded and “checked out” electronically for a limited period of time; other times, they must be viewed online through your browser. Either way, use Evernote to clip your quotes (include the write citation information) so you can find it later.

Google Books

This is one of my favorite ways to do find sources, but there are a few things to be aware of. First, you can often view many chapters for free, but you won’t have access to the whole book, and you can’t download it. Also, the pages available for free preview change sometimes, so if you go back to find that quote later, you might not be able to track it down. Use Evernote Web Clipper to screenshot the sections you want to quote, so that you have them when you start writing.
Also, be aware that not every book in Google Books is a scholarly source. I recommend researching the author and checking out what articles they have written (see above) to make sure you are getting good academic material.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar, on the other hand, will typically be limited to scholarly sources. But, they are not always available to access. If you find a source that you would like and it isn’t available, try looking for that source in your library’s database or looking for other material by the same author.

Go down a bibliography bunny trail to find great scholarly sources!Bibliography Bunny Trails

One of the best ways to find good sources is to check the bibliographies from encyclopedias, textbooks, and the sources you have already found. You may not have access to all of the sources cited, but you can use the methods above to locate those sources or others by the same authors.
Note: Look for “edited volumes:” books where each chapter is an essay by a different author. Book chapters may be easier to digest than an entire book as a source, and these will help you pull together many of the different thinkers on a topic easily.

Digital Archives:

Looking for primary sources? This can be especially challenging for remote students. You used to have to go find that letter, photograph, government document, or diary at a collection somewhere, so you would be limited in your research by where you go geographically, as well as the time of day you could go. This is still true at times, but now, many of these primary source documents are being added to digital archives such as the Valley of the Shadow Project. They might be managed by universities, historical societies and museums, or government agencies, such as the Library of Congress, they provide all the information you need to cite these (sometimes unique) sources, and many are available to access for free online. In some graduate programs such as the History MA at Cal State San Marcos, students complete digital projects that make primary source material available in online archives as well. Check out the Archives page for Ashley Atkin's project!

More Great Resources on Finding Scholarly Sources:

Massey University: Identifying Academic Sources

What about you? Where do you start when looking for scholarly sources? What is the hardest part of finding good sources?

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

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