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BOS 101: Boston Childhoods: Source Types

Scholarly vs. Popular Sources

The table below shows which characteristics are more commonly associated with scholarly or popular sources. Both scholarly and popular sources can be appropriate for your research purposes, depending on your research topic/question and your assignment parameters.

Scholarly Popular
Authors: Experts such as scientists, faculty, practitioners, and historians Usually generalists, including bloggers, staff writers, and journalists; not always attributed
Examples: Children's Literature Association Quarterly (ChLAQ); Journal of Public Child Welfare; The Future of Children; Youth & Society; books from University presses such as Oxford University Press and the University of California Press Boston Globe; New York Times; Wikipedia;; Time Magazine; bestselling books; books from popular/trade publishers like Penguin and Random House
Focus: Usually specific and in-depth Often broad overviews or opposing viewpoints
Language: Dense; includes academic jargon Easier to read; defines specialized terms
Citations: Include bibliographies, citations, and footnotes that follow a particular academic style guide No formal citations included; may or may not informally attribute sources in text 
Pre-publication: Very often evaluated by peers/other scholars (peer-reviewed or peer-refereed) Edited by in-house editors or not edited at all
Audience: Specialists in the subject area: students, professors and the author's peers General readers; usually doesn't require any special background
Purpose: Communicating research findings; education Inform, entertain; provide news/updates

Other Kinds of Sources

Grey Literature refers to reports, conference proceedings, preprints, working papers, theses, dissertations, personal communications, technical notes" and other ephemeral scientific sources, often published by government, business or academic organizations. This kind of literature can be key for emerging research and alternative perspectives.

Government Publications are a subset of grey literature, and can be important sources for state, federal, and international perspectives on official government proceedings of all kinds.

Tertiary Sources refer to encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks and other reference materials that provide broad overviews of particular topics. Where secondary sources summarize and interpret an event or phenomenon, tertiary sources summarize and interpret other resources. They can be a great place to begin studying unfamiliar topics.

‚ÄčTrade Literature refers to journals, websites, newsletters and other sources aimed at professionals in a particular field. These sources will often report news and trends in the field, reviews of products related to the industry at hand, interviews with leaders in the field, as well as job listings and advertisements.


A peer-reviewed or peer-refereed journal or article is one in which a group of widely acknowledged experts in a field reviews the content for scholarly soundness and academic value.

You can limit your search results to peer reviewed materials in many library databases:

Google Scholar

What is Google Scholar?
Google Scholar searches for scholarly literature in a simple, familiar way. You can search across many disciplines and sources at once to find articles, books, theses, court opinions, and content from academic publishers, professional societies, some academic web sites, and more.

Stuff you can do:

  • Getting the "big picture" of the scholarly discourse around a topic.
  • Viewing books, articles, conference proceedings, and more in one list.
  • Using the "Cited by" tool to look forward in a citation chain
  • Determining authors and publications in an area of interest.
  • Tracking down incomplete citations.

Stuff you can't do:

  • Limiting and sorting results by type (eg. peer reviewed articles, full-text, reviews).
  • Searching within a specific discipline
  • Browsing by journal title.
  • Doing a comprehensive search for a literature review.
  • Using controlled vocabulary to search by subject.
  • Emailing lists of search results.