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Expos 20: The Ruling Class: Basic Concepts: Working with Sources

Basic Concepts

The raw, unanalyzed material of scholarship (Harvard Guide to Using Sources). Examples: Statistics, interviews, government documents, novels, diaries, correspondence, posters, 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  • Although not peer-reviewed, adheres to standards of accuracy, journalistic ethics, and a clearly-stated editorial policy.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

Standards for Evaluating Sources (Beyond Peer Review)

Does the author have a relevant academic or institutional affiliation? Has the author published other books or articles on the subject?

Why, and for whom, was the source written? Is the author an academic who is engaging in a particular scholarly conversation, or is this a personal response to an issue or text? Does the author have some kind of financial stake in expressing a particular point of view? Does the author work for an organization with a known viewpoint on the issues discussed in the source? It's important to make sure that you ask these questions so that you'll know whether a source is of limited use to you due to a bias or a particular perspective.

What does the source cover, and in what depth? Is the argument that it makes relevant to your topic? Does it lay out background information relevant to your topic or summarize other research?

Is the publication a peer-reviewed journal or a university press book? Is it published by an organization with a known viewpoint or financial stake in an issue? Articles and books published by organizations with political affiliations or financial interests may be useful to you as you learn about a topic, but you should be aware of how these affiliations and interests might shape the data or arguments in the source.

Depending on the field of study, it may be crucial to use the most up-to-date sources.

adapted from The Harvard Guide to Using Sources