When seeking information about any subject (especially online), one will uncover various different types of sources. Many sources can be categorised as non-academic, including newspaper articles, blog posts, online encyclopedias, forum discussions, corporate or personal websites, and popular magazine articles. Academic sources are those associated with professional academia, the set of people and institutions professionally engaged in study and/or teaching. Academic sources include journal articles published by recognised academic journals, books published by academic presses, working papers published by scholars at universities, college-level textbooks, academic conference proceedings, and certain online databases, encyclopedias, and compendia. Some sources fall into a grey-zone between academic and non-academic, such as government or corporate reports, popular science works, and material published by private think-tanks. Such material is often written by trained academics, however it is typically published outside of academic presses and not subject to the usual peer review processes.
Both academic and non-academic sources are valuable and appropriate to consult, in accordance with one’s research goals. There are many good, reliable non-academic sources, and conversely much work of questionable quality published in academic sources. Nevertheless, academic sources are typically subject to a degree of scrutiny (from the publishers and from peer review, as well as respondents to journal articles or by conference attendees) that non-academic sources may not be. Academic sources publish material written by those who specialise in studying a particular subject as their career, and must as a result have some degree of familiarity with what other scholars have found and written about that subject. This is not necessarily the case for non-academic sources, where it is much more common for facts to be asserted and opinions developed without reference to the existing scholarly work on the subject. This is why, when conducting serious or in-depth research, it is generally advisable to rely on academic sources. This is no guarantee that the findings or viewpoints expressed will be correct, but it is a generally useful (though imperfect) method of quality control.
When seeking to become informed about a subject, be that subject scientific, philosophical, historical, or economic/political, it is extremely valuable to consult the academic literature to see what experts have thought and said about that subject. Non-academic sources can often be easier to locate and more accessible, however they seldom go into the same depth as academic sources. One of the biggest advantages of academic work is that it will always include citations and references which one can consult in one’s own research – something often lacking in non-academic sources. On the other hand, academic literature is typically less accessible to a mainstream audience, and so may be more suitable only after the reader has obtained some degree of background from non-academic sources.
Understanding academic literature: an excellent guide to structuring research by UNB libraries
Assessing source quality: brief but helpful guide to how to analyse sources produced by PennState University
Evaluating the credibility of your sources: short but useful guide produced for students by Columbia College
Evidence in Medicine: a discussion of the types of evidence found in scientific medicine and how to evaluate the strength of medical claims
‘Real’ meaning of research terms: a humorous but informative outline of what certain common words and phrases used by researchers ‘really mean’; a useful caution in reading academic literature