Online sources are becoming an increasingly important tool in academic research. It is important, however, to ensure that you use reliable sources in your course assignments and papers. Simply picking from the first few selections of a Google search is not always the best method.
Archibald Library online resources
The Archibald Library website is a great place to start your search for online resources. These are some important pages you will not want to miss.
Create a borrowing account to access subscription-based online sources. Note that this borrowing account also allows you to borrow books from the library (shipping is free in Canada).
Search journals for articles on your topic. Some articles are available online in full text, and others are available in our library.
A Word about Wikipedia
Wikipedia is another popular source of information on the web and for good reason-it's extensive and often extremely current. However, because anyone can edit Wikipedia pages, they are not always reliable and most instructors will not want you to use them as references in your assignments. Instead, we encourage you to use Wikipedia as a starting point to get a general overview of a topic and to find other sources. The external links at the bottom of a Wikipedia page are often very good, so make sure to take advantage of this resource. The Archibald Library provides all students with online access to Encyclopedia Britannica, which has most of the advantages of Wikipedia while also being a reliable, published source.
Scholarly vs. popular publications: What's the difference?
Finally, when you find a resource, electronic or otherwise, how do you know if it is appropriate to use in an assignment or paper? Instructors will sometimes use the terms "scholarly" or "popular" to refer to a certain publication, or request that you use "academic sources" in completing an assignment. Being aware of this distinction can help you decide which sources to select in your research.
The words "scholarly," "academic," and "peer-reviewed" are often used interchangeably to refer to sources that have been written by researchers for use by other researchers and usually assume the reader will already have at least some knowledge about the subject.
Characteristics of scholarly works may include the following:
- written by an expert in a field of study
- the result of a scientific study or academic research
- has been reviewed and/or evaluated by other subject experts
- intended for an academic audience
- published by a university press or professional organization
- uses technical or specialized language
- always provides citations
- in the case of journals, advertising is minimal or absent
The word "popular," on the other hand, is used to refer to sources that have been written for use by the general public and those who are unfamiliar with the subject.
Characteristics of popular works may include the following:
- written by a non-expert
- has not been reviewed or evaluated by subject experts
- intended for a general audience
- uses common and non-specialized language
- written at a lower reading level
- may not have citations
- in the case of magazines, will include advertising
Wikipedia has a nice rationale for why self-published works should not be used as sources in academic papers:
A self-published source is a published source that has not been subject to any form of independent fact-checking, or where no one stands between the writer and the act of publication. It includes personal websites, and books published by vanity presses. Anyone can create a website or pay to have a book published and then claim to be an expert in a certain field. For that reason, self-published books, personal websites, and blogs are largely not acceptable as sources.*
These are general characteristics that should give you a sense of the difference between the two types of publications. There are, of course, books and journals that try to bridge the gap and will often be written by subject experts, but intended for a more general audience.
* "Wikipedia:Reliable sources," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Sept. 2006 [document online]; available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Reliable_sources; Internet; accessed 11 Sept. 2006.