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Research Methods for the Social Sciences

How to use Reference Sources

Reference sources, such as encyclopedias (including Wikipedia) 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 only
  • Reference sources are not a substitute for scholarly literature and you cannot cite them in your paper
  • Not all reference sources are reliable
  • Reference sources only summarize topics

The Differences Between 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.


Grey Literature

"Grey literature is the literature produced by government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers. Therefore, grey literature can at times be difficult to identify and obtain. It includes theses and dissertations, conference papers and proceedings, research reports, government documents, technical notes and specifications, proposals, data compilations, clinical trials, etc. Often grey literature does not have an international standard book number (ISBN) or an international standard serial number (ISSN)." 

Read more: Research Process Grey Literature Guide - Libguide Northcentral University Library