Determining and Using Scholarly References

In the age of the internet, there is much greater access to information, including scholarly resources. However, this comes with challenges as well. An important skill that students and scholars need to develop is the ability to determine whether a resource is considered a scholarly resource.

Identifying Scholarly References

Two characteristic determine whether a resource can be considered a scholarly reference: 1) peer-review and 2) being written for a scholarly audience. A scholarly reference meets both of these criteria.

In general, most journal articles, edited books, and professional trade books published by major publishers meet this criteria. Additionally, conference papers generally are considered to meet this criteria even though the peer review is typically just of the abstract, not the entire paper. For this reason, academic papers rely primarily, if not exclusively, on these resources.

Below is a list of some commonly used references that are not scholarly and should be avoided in most situations:

1) Wikipedia

2) Self-help books and books intended for a general or lay audience

3) Most websites (Few websites could be considered a scholarly resource, even faculty pages on .edu websites and .gov websites. These may have useful information in gaining some background about your topic, but rarely are scholarly resources. See also Internet Resources and Scholarly Writing)

4) Classroom lectures (This is okay in some situations, but it is better to find an article on the topic by your professor or locate the scholarly resources they are drawing upon for their lecture)

As a general rule, if you can find something open access on the internet there is a good chance that it is not a scholarly resource. There are some exceptions to this, such as online journals and websites developed for scholars, such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate.net. If you can find it open access on the internet, it is best to do some extra work to verify if it is a scholarly resource.

Using Scholarly References

When writing papers for class or publication, it is generally best that 100% of your references are scholarly. Additionally, it is important that you do not rely too much on any one resource, but instead engage the breadth of scholarly resources on your topic. There are some exceptions. For example, if you are citing statistics, you might rely upon government or other agency statistics on websites. If you do use a resource that does not meet the requirements to be considered a scholarly resource, use it sparingly and only when you do not have a scholarly resource that you can use instead.

Scholarly Resources to Avoid

There are some scholarly resources that are best to avoid citing in most situation:

1) General Textbooks: It is best to avoid using general textbooks, such as a personality theory, biological bases of behavior, or similar textbooks, as a reference for a couple of reasons. First, it is better to go to the primary source. From the reference section of these books you might be able to identify good, scholarly resources to use, but do not use the textbook itself. Second, this often is used as a shortcut to avoid doing a literature review or finding a primary source.

2) Textbooks, in general: Especially as you continue your academic journey into graduate school, many textbooks are trade books that are scholarly resources. However, relying on textbooks from previous classes instead of going into the academic literature is avoiding one of the primary expectations of writing a scholarly paper: engaging the scholarly literature. Professors generally come to recognize textbooks from other classes and if these are relied upon to the neglect of other scholarly resources, this will generally work against you. Your grade may be lowered or you may be asked to rewrite the paper after spending more time engaging the scholarly literature.

Additional Resources

For more information on this topic, I would recommend watching the YouTube video I developed: “Critical Thinking and Scholarly Writing” and “Scholalry Sources in Academic Writing Video by Louis Hoffman, PhD.”


The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth.’

— Dan Rather