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Finding, Reading & Evaluating Scholarly Sources

Introduction: What are Scholarly Sources?

Scholarly sources are written by academics and other experts and contribute to knowledge in a particular field by sharing new research findings, theories, analyses, insights, news, or summaries of current knowledge.

Scholarly sources can include books. Scholarly books tend to share the following characteristics:

  • Written by a scholar, researcher, or expert in the field
  • Uses discipline-specific terminology, methodology, theory
  • Advances research or contributes to a discipline of study
  • Maybe a monograph or edited compilation of contributions from multiple scholars
  • Published by a university, scholarly association, or professional association

Most of the time, however, when we talk about scholarly sources, we refer to periodicals, called scholarly journals.

Articles published in scholarly journals are typically peer-reviewed, but not always. Scholarly journals often publish different types of articles, including:

  • recent original research or experimentation,
  • theoretical discussions,
  • articles that critically review already published work,
  • and sometimes book reviews and letters to the editor.

Most library databases identify whether or not the sources are scholarly or peer-reviewed publications, so look for that information when you do searches. For more information on finding scholarly sources, see the "Finding Scholarly Peer Reviewed Sources" tab.

This short video from Cornell University provides a helpful introduction to identifying a scholarly article. 

What is Peer Review?

In academic publishing, the goal of peer review is to assess the quality of articles submitted for publication. Before an article is accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, it must undergo the following process:

  • The author of the article must submit it to the journal. The journal editor then forwards the article to experts in the field. Because the reviewers specialize in the same scholarly area as the author, they are considered the author’s peers (hence “peer review”).
  • These impartial reviewers are charged with carefully evaluating the quality of the submitted manuscript.
  • The peer reviewers check the manuscript for accuracy and assess the validity of the research methodology and procedures.
  • If appropriate, they suggest revisions. If they find the article lacking in scholarly validity and rigor, they reject it.

Because a peer-reviewed journal will not publish articles that fail to meet the standards established for a given discipline, peer-reviewed articles that are accepted for publication typically exemplify the best research practices in a field.

Here's a short video that explains peer review:

Types of Scholarly Articles

The following are the types of articles typically published in scholarly journals: 


An empirical research article reports the results of a study that uses data derived from actual observation or experimentation. Empirical research articles are examples of primary research.

Case Study

Detailed account of clinically important cases of common and rare conditions.


Summarizes the findings of others studies or experiments; attempts to identify trends or draw broader conclusions. Scholarly in nature but not a primary source or research article, however its reference to other articles will include primary sources or research articles.

There are several types of  Review Articles.

  • Narrative: a literature review that describes and discusses the state of the science of a specific topic or theme.
  • Systematica comprehensive review of all relevant studies on a particular topic/question. The systematic review is created by following an explicit methodology for identifying/selecting the studies to include and evaluating their results.
  • Meta-analysis: the statistical procedure for combining data from multiple studies. This is usually, but not always, presented with a systematic review.

Letters of Communication

Short descriptions of important latest study or research findings which are usually considered urgent for immediate publication. Examples: breakthroughs regarding cures or treatments for previously incurable conditions, or cure for a particular outbreak of disease, like for example swine flu.


Containing or referring to a set of abstract principles related to a specific field of knowledge; characteristically it does not contain original empirical research or present experimental data, although it is scholarly.


Describes technique, work flow, management or human resources issue.

Professional Communication

 Most scholarly journals publish articles that pertain to the workings of the profession but are not 'scholarly' in nature. For example: Book reviews and letters to the editor

Primary and Secondary Sources

Scholarly books and articles may be primary or secondary sources.  Both primary and secondary sources can be useful to you in your research, but it's helpful to be able to distinguish which is which. The following are some quick ways to determine if the source you've found is a primary source or a secondary source.

Primary Sources

  • Describe original research, or original analysis of someone else's data
  • Articles and papers by the researcher(s) presenting data and research findings
  • Describe methodology and findings
  • Statistics or datasets

Secondary Sources

  • Discuss research done by others
  • News, magazine articles, books, and review articles explaining, analyzing, or commenting on research
  • Published AFTER primary sources (“second”)