Basic Concepts

The raw, unanalyzed material of scholarship (Harvard Guide to Using Sources). Examples: Novels, diaries, correspondence, posters, data, interviews, government documents, cartoons, films, maps, manuscripts.

Analysis or commentary on a primary source.

"A system of intellectual quality control" (Anderson, p. 64) in which articles and books are evaluated anonymously by other experts (the author's "peers") before being accepted for publication. Articles and books that are peer-reviewed (or "refereed") are considered the most authoritative scholarly publications. But not all scholarly publishers use anonymous peer review; some have an editor, or a team of editors, assess the validity and originality of an article or a book.


A published source that:

  • Cites its sources in notes and bibliographies
  • Is written by a credentialed scholar or researcher in the field (how do you know?)
  • Uses the technical language of the discipline
  • Is aimed at a readership who are familiar with the terms and concepts of the field
  • May be published by a scholarly or professional association; by a university press (e.g., Harvard University Press); or by a non-university press that specializes in academic books (Brill, Routledge, others)
  • Is usually peer-reviewed (see above)
  • Examples: Journals in JSTOR

A published source that:

  • Usually doesn't cite sources, but may mention them in passing
  • Is written by an expert in the field or a well-informed journalist or freelance writer
  • Is written in non-technical language
  • Is aimed at a general audience of educated, interested readers
  • Although not peer-reviewed, adheres to standards of accuracy, journalistic ethics, and a clearly-stated editorial policy.
  • Is published by a commercial or nonprofit publisher
  • Examples: The Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Economist

A published source that:

  • Doesn't mention sources, except the names of people being quoted
  • Isn't assigned to a writer based on special knowledge
  • Is written in non-technical language
  • Is written to entertain a general audience and to increase readership
  • May not adhere to standards of accuracy or journalistic ethics
  • Is published by a commercial enterprise
  • Examples: People, National Enquirer, GQ, Buzzfeed