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How to use Reference Sources

Image of an open volume of The Annual Cyclopaedia

Reference sources, such as encyclopedias and dictionaries, are excellent tools for gathering general information about a topic. In addition to print reference books, RSU Libraries offers online reference sources through the Gale and Salem databases. If you use reference sources in your research, keep the following in mind:

Reference sources are for background information 

If you want to learn more about a new topic, reference sources are the perfect place to start. Unlike scholarly literature, which assumes that its audience is knowledgeable of its topic, reference sources give you basic information in straightforward language. If you need definitions, statistical information, or background information, reference sources should be your first stop.

Reference sources are not a substitute for scholarly literature

Reference sources provide summaries of topics; they are intended to be sources of objective and factual information. In general, they should not be used as supporting evidence in research papers. Although the reference sources available through the library are excellent sources of information, they are not considered peer-reviewed material. Some professors will not allow you to cite reference sources in papers, so make sure you understand the expectations of the assignment beforehand.

Not all reference sources are reliable

If you use reference sources for an assignment, make sure that they are published by a credible entity. Encyclopedias published by major research universities are usually the most appropriate sources for academic assignments. Be careful when using open-source encyclopedias like Wikipedia. Anyone can edit these sites, and their information may be unreliable. Finally, make sure that your reference sources are current. Acceptable date ranges for currency depend on the academic discipline in question.

Understanding Scholarly, Popular, and Trade Sources

The databases available through RSU Libraries index a variety of scholarly, trade, and popular sources. In order to complete your assignments successfully, it is important to understand the difference between each of these.

Scholarly sources

Scholarly, or "peer-reviewed" sources, are written by scholars for other scholars and students in a particular field, and undergo an extensive review process (peer-review) before they are published. For this reason, scholarly literature plays a central role in most academic disciplines, including history, the humanities, social sciences, and the hard sciences. If your professor requires that you use scholarly publications for an assignment, understand that there is no substitute for this type of source. If you have questions about whether or not a source is scholarly, ask your professor or librarian.

Trade sources

Like scholarly sources, trade sources are written for experts and students in a given field, but do not undergo a peer-review process before they are published. Although they are not scholarly in nature, trade publications can be excellent sources of information, and are used extensively in ever-evolving fields where research dates quickly, such as business and technology.

Popular sources

Unlike scholarly and trade sources, which are written for academic and professional audiences, popular sources are written for a general audience. The term "popular source" is used to describe everything from entertainment magazines like Maxim to highly regarded national newspapers, such as The New York Times. Quality popular publications can be great sources for academic research, so long as they are chosen carefully and used appropriately. The quality of popular sources varies greatly, so be selective about which ones you use for your assignments.

Reference Books

The following reference books are available in print through the Rogers State University Library.  This list is not comprehensive.