So you’ve been tasked with some kind of assignment (likely a research paper, but there are other options, too) that requires you to use “scholarly” sources. How do you find these magical items?

Well, if you find a work that is kind of dry, boring, and talks endlessly about scholars and theories you’ve never heard of, congratulations, you’ve likely found academic “scholarship.” I’m joking (only a little).

What is It?: First, let’s simply review what is implied by the terms “scholarly” and “scholarship.” Superficially, this means that a work is written by scholars, but more importantly this means a work is written for scholars. Here’s the important difference: a scholar could write a book for a popular audience, thus while the work may be credible and respected, it would not be the type of thing that scholars read and rely upon for their intellectual endeavors. In other words, it would not bear the conventions of traditional scholarship (noted below) and thus would not be “scholarship.”

At a basic level, trying to find scholarly sources can be tricky because it requires you to infer who the intended audience is for the work – in our case, other scholars. Unless you are fully trained and socialized into a scholarly discipline (history, psychology, chemistry, or whatnot), scholarly works are not written for you, hence they can often come off as dry and boring. It’s like trying to join a conversation late, you don’t really know what’s going on or fully catch all of the “inside jokes.” (Don’t let this dissuade you! Every scholar starts off feeling like this.)

How to Find It: The simplest way to determine if a particular work is scholarship is to identify if the work is “peer-reviewed,” meaning that before a work is published it went through a rigorous review process by scholars (“peers” in the same academic field) who agreed upon the value of the research and its conclusions.[1] If you find an academic journal article, make sure the journal in which it is published claims that it is peer-reviewed (look online or in the print volume itself). Books are a little more difficult to identify as peer-reviewed, but try to locate works that are published by university presses (Princeton University Press, University of California Press, etc.). (Though, be aware, there are other publishing houses that print scholarly works.) If you can further determine if the author holds (or has held) a university position, there’s a good chance the work you have is indeed “scholarly.”

Moreover, if you used specialized search engine, such as Google Scholar or a college library  database, there’s a good chance the work is true scholarship. But still check to see if it’s peer-reviewed.

What to Watch Out For: Sometimes we will find works that provide us with great, well-informed knowledge on a topic. This may be a spectacular article in National Geographic Scientific American or a witty and interesting book on a fun topic by a popular publisher, such as Simon and Schuster. While these are great for giving you insight, they are not scholarship because they are not peer-reviewed publications.

Let me make an important distinction, here. Peer-review is not just a barrier to keep certain people out of a special “scholar’s club”[2]; it’s meant to help filter out work that is not up to scholarly evidentiary standards and, perhaps most importantly, to make sure the work actually “pushes the field forward,” which is a snappy way of saying that it provides new information on a topic.

There are plenty of published works in the world which provide reliable information on a topic, but do not add anything new to the discussion. The most common scholarship-doppelgänger in this regard are works written by career journalists. They often do a fantastic job in summarizing the available scholarship on a topic and write in an invigorating, accessible way. But summarizing old ideas do not push a field forward, even though it may introduce ideas to a much broader audience (with much better prose). Thus, some of the basic genre conventions of scholarship is that it uses a solid ground of evidence to build to a conclusion (thesis) that is new or significant.

What to Do When You Find It: My advice here is simple: read unevenly. Do not put all of your energy into reading each passage with the same intellectual intensity. First, get an understanding of what the article or book is about by reading, slowly and carefully, the introduction (or abstract) and then perhaps jumping to the conclusion. Remember, you want to find out what the work is ultimately arguing for. This should be the new thing that pushes the field forward. The bulk of the writing will explain how that conclusion (thesis) was arrived at through marshalling lots of evidence. Once you know where the argument is going, try to piece together the most important pieces of evidence that lend to that conclusion.

 

Notes:

[1] Of course, even if a work is peer-reviewed, that does not mean it hasn’t been problematized or even discredited after publication.

[2] There’s certainly a worthwhile discussion to be had here about how knowledge is socially constructed and how some (often marginalized) voices are left out of the scholarly debate.

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