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Online Learning v.1

Knowing What You're Looking At

There are so many different kinds of sources in the world, varying not just in quality but in goals, styles, disciplines, and norms. Unfortunately, much of that information goes unstated, leaving it to you to sort out what's what. Understanding what counts as high quality work in a given discipline, publication type, or genre can take a lot of time, but this section will provide you with an initial roadmap to help you through the process.

Key Points to Remember:

Your first question should always be: What is kind of source is this?

Is it a peer-reviewed article? A magazine exposé? An opinion piece in a newspaper? A blog post? Graffiti? A love letter? Just identifying what kind of source something is can tell you a lot about its purpose, its uses, and the norms it is conforming to--or bucking. More to the point, identifying what a source is will help you understand whether you can/should use it in your assignment.

There is high-quality work in (almost) every genre.

The types of sources a scholar or professional--including your professor--will be most accepting or encouraging of you using in your paper depends not just on source quality but also on the kinds of work that are a standard in their field. That standard varies from professor to professor, and standards are always contested and changing. Still, your professor not accepting the use of a newspaper article as a source in your paper has less to do with the overall quality of that article and more to do with the fact that for many areas of research, peer-reviewed scholarly articles are the norm.

Telling the difference between kinds of articles can get very confusing. This chart can help you sort out which is which.

Remember: These are general categories that most publications will conform to, but sometimes publishers will surprise you. When in doubt, check out the individual publication on the internet to get further details.

  Scholarly Journals Newspapers Popular Magazines Trade Journals


San Francisco Chronicle

Domus Magazine

Communication Arts Magazine


Original research; experiments, case-studies, literature reviews;

In-depth analyses of issues in the field;

Articles often include abstract, method, discussion, tables, conclusion, and bibliography

Current events and news that may be local, regional, national or international; 

Ads, editorials, opinion pieces;

Primary source for information on events;

Secondary account of someone else's research that may include opinion

Current events and news that may be national or international; 

General information with purpose to entertain or inform;

Analyses of popular culture;

Primary source for interviews;

Secondary account of someone else's research that may include opinion

Current news, trends, or products in an industry or professional organization;

Statistics, forecasts, employment and career information


4000 to 7000 words in length

500 to 1000 words in length 2500 to 4000 words in length 2500 to 4000 words in length
Language / Tone

Academic, technical jargon that uses the language of the discipline;

Requires subject expertise

Written for a general audience;

Understandable language

Written for a general audience; 

Understandable language

Specialized jargon or terminology of the field;

Written for practitioners/professionals

Authors Researchers, scholars, professors, etc. Journalists or staff writers Journalists or staff writers Practitioners in the field, industry professionals, or journalists with subject expertise
Citations References, footnotes or bibliographies are always included with a full list of complete citations Rarely cite sources in full, will instead hyperlink to source of original research Rarely cite sources in full, will instead hyperlink to source of original research References are rarely included, will instead hyperlink to source of original research
Editors Journal's editorial board, or if peer-reviewed, external scholars in the same field Work for the publishers, who may or may not employ fact-checkers and copy-editors Work for the publishers, who may or may not employ fact-checkers and copy-editors Work for the publishers
Publishers Universities, scholarly presses, or academic organizations Commercial publishers Commercial publishers Commercial publishers or trade and professional organizations
Example Databases Subject Databases like Nursing & Allied Health Source, PsycARTICLES Newspaper Source Academic Search Premier, Proquest Research Library  Business Source Complete

From an academic perspective, the key question you want to answer when investigating a book is:

Who published it?

Answering this can provide you with a starting point on the genre of a given book. However, it isn't as precise as you might think when it comes to locating scholarly work, as many different kinds of publishers put out scholarly books:

  • University Presses: These publishers are affiliated with a university and considered to be highly reputable. Examples include Northwestern University Press and Oxford University Press.
  • Commercial Publishers: Includes major publishers like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Macmillan, as well as their numerous subsidiaries.
  • Professional or Trade Associations, Research Centers, or Institutions: Organizations that publish materials written by experts in a field or subject, such as American Philosophical Society, American Management Association, or International Food Policy Research Institute.
  • Government (International, US, State or Local): Includes entities like the World Health Organization, U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), Illinois State Board of Education, City of Evanston.

Since many publishers put out books aimed at a range of audiences--including scholars and the general reader--it's important to consider a few other factors when determining whether a book is scholarly enough to be a quality source:

Authors: Look for background information about the author, such as educational experience, previously published research, or whether an author has been cited in other research. You can often find biographical details and affiliations for the author in the book itself. 

Bibliographies: Look for a bibliography in your book or look for your book in a bibliography. Scholarly, well-researched books will include bibliographies or lists of consulted source materials used.

Book Reviews: Has the book been reviewed in scholarly journals? Have reviews appeared in other magazines or major newspapers, with scholars or cultural critics writing the reviews?

Portions of the above content is adapted from Colorado State University Library's page "How to Evaluate Books."


Government agencies, nonprofits, think tanks, and others will produce reports and research of various kinds that is often made available on the open internet. This research is often produced on hot-button issues, and therefore can be great sources of timely information or useful overviews. Some of this work is even-handed and excellent; some is less so. As always, it is important to consider the source for their agendas and biases and to look closely at the methodologies used in producing the study. And as always, look at bibliographies not just to evaluate--they can lead you to other great sources!


Blog Posts and Newsletters

With the rise of sites like Medium and Substack, we've seen a resurgence of blogging as a venue for serious discussion among scholars and journalists. However, the quality of work varies widely and undergoes no editorial oversight, and the high production values of many of these websites can add a veneer of reputability to highly partisan and/or poor quality work. Given these potential concerns, it's important to approach using and citing these sources with a great deal of caution. Investigate the author and claims the source makes using the evaluation techniques discussed below.


Theses and Dissertations

Theses and dissertations represent the culminating work in a scholar's graduate program. As such, they are the result of years of intensive research under the supervision of other scholars. However, as with other source types, quality can vary widely depending on numerous factors. In general, these may not be the best sources to center your writing around, but they can be useful supplementary citations to a fleshed out project. Dissertations or theses can be especially useful for their bibliographies. Graduate students are generally required to do an extensive review of literature on their topic, and this can be an excellent guide to a wide range of sources. (The HNU Library has dissertation/thesis databases, but you may also find them on the open internet.)