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Searching for information: Academic sources

Academic sources

In higher education we'll need to draw upon particular types of literature — what we might call academic sources or scholarly texts. These academic sources take many forms. A lot of the time they will be research outputs: people writing up (or otherwise sharing) the findings of research they've conducted. There are other types of academic source, but in most disciplines that's the main sort of thing you're likely to be using.

You could think of all academic work as essentially being part of a long conversation. People have come before us, researching and writing on a topic. Then other people have taken up that research, questioned it, tested it, and expanded upon our understanding. Then you're coming along, furthering that conversation even more. And maybe in the future someone else will see your contribution and build upon that too.

I think all geese are evil.

I've looked at ten geese and they were all definitely naughty.

I've replicated your experiment and while all the geese were bad tempered, one definitely seemed to show helpful behaviours.

What is evil anyway?

When you start out at University you'll find that a lot of useful academic materials will be collated in a Reading List and will be available from the Library (be it physically or electronically). As you progress you'll need to engage with a breadth of literature in order to support your own arguments and evidence your theories. To do that you'll eventually need to look further afield than your Reading Lists and the Library's Discover tool.

Journal articles

One of the most common academic sources is the journal article. Researchers publish their research in academic journals which usually cover a specific discipline. Journals used to be printed magazines but now they're mostly published online. Some journals have stronger reputations and more rigorous editorial controls than others. 

Types of article

There are all sorts of different types of journal article. The article's title might make it clear what type it is, but other aspects of the article will also give you a clue.

Research / Empirical

Results of studies or experiments, written by those who conducted them. They're built around observation or experiment, and generally start with (or at least have a prominent) methodology.

Case study

Descriptions of an individual situation in detail, identify characteristics, findings, or issues, and analyse the case using relevant methodologies or theoretical frameworks.


Summaries of other studies, identifying trends to draw broader conclusions. We look at these in more detail in our section on review articles.


Scholarly articles regarding abstract principles in a specific field of knowledge, not tied to empirical research or data. They may be predictive, and based upon an understanding of the field. They generally start with a background section or a literature review.


Real world techniques, workflows etc. This type of article is generally found in trade / professional journals which are aimed at a professional or practicing audience rather than an academic one.

Peer review

Peer review process

Most good quality journals (and even some bad ones) employ a process called peer-review whereby submitted articles are vetted by a panel of fellow experts in the field. The peer-review panel may demand extensive re-writes of an article to bring it to an acceptable standard for publication. Flaws in the methodology may be highlighted and the author will then have to address these in the text. The result should be that the published work is reliable and of a high standard, and this is usually the case (though not always, as this blog post on the problems with Peer Review explains). Many databases will let you filter to exclude work that hasn't been peer-reviewed.

Finding articles

You could read every journal that's published on your subject, but that's probably a lot of journals. Fortunately, there are databases which catalogue the contents of a selection of journals. You can search these databases to find the articles that will be of use to you.

Review articles

Several things get called reviews and all of them can turn up in databases.

Search limits in databases will let you refine your search, and you can often use these tools to include (or exclude) particular types of study.


We're all familiar with things like film and music reviews: "This album is amazing! 5 stars!"

Articles like this occasionally show up in academic databases. You might even get a journal article reviewing another journal article.

Be alert to this. It's easy to waste time and energy on an article only to find that it's actually just a review of a different article.

But reviewing other literature as a whole is a big feature of the academic landscape, and one to be aware of.

Literature reviews

Some types of article seek to find as much published research as possible on a topic and look for corroborations in the findings. The scale of such reviews can vary dramatically. Some form of literature review is a commonplace feature of most research articles, as well as in dissertations and theses: it's important to establish the background to the author's own research, and how that research relates to the work that has gone before. But literature reviews can be research projects in themselves, and some of the articles you may encounter will be such literature reviews.

Systematic reviews

A lot of things get called systematic reviews without actually being systematic reviews. Simple literature reviews, for instance, might aspire to the badge. But systematic reviews do more than simply identify and summarise existing publications. High quality systematic reviews of complex questions can involve large teams of researchers and can take months or even years to complete. They will seek out all literature on a topic (potentially even unpublished evidence), assessing the quality of each study and synthesizing the findings in an effort to determine a corroborative "truth" of the matter.

Systematic reviews are particularly a feature of medicine. Let's imagine Medicine X has been trialed in 10 different studies. The systematic review will dig out all 10 studies, assess the quality of those studies (perhaps discarding any that were insufficiently rigorous), and collate the findings. In such a way it is possible to establish, with increased confidence, the efficacy (or not) of Medicine X.

Other scholarly materials

What is considered an appropriate academic source will vary according to discipline and topic. Let's take a look at some of the more common examples...

Grey literature, websites, and news sources

Some material is what is known as grey literature: organisational reports, projects, leaflets, etc., published outside normal academic publishing and distribution channels. Such documents are often found in the 'publications' sections of organisational websites.

Websites and newspapers may also offer academically relevant material, but often have a narrow focus and are more likely to demonstrate bias. They may offer insight into public (or establishment) opinion.

Company, markets and statistics

Official statistics (e.g. government or think-tank studies) company reports and market information may also be of value.

Conference proceedings

Some research will be presented at a conference and published as conference proceedings. These are often indexed in the same databases as journals.


Theses & dissertations

Theses or dissertations are another form of research output, and will often be found on a University repository like QMU's eTheses, the British Library's EThOS resource or White Rose Research Online.

Other sources

In the arts, performance, artefacts or compositions will be of relevance, as will reviews of previous works.

Particularly in humanities subjects, maps and archive materials may be of use.

Finding the right reading

When you do a Google search or a search in the library's Discover tool, you will get a massive reading list. How do you choose which are the best texts? Who do you trust? Where do you get the most reliable data from? The slides below explore how to select the most appropriate reading for the task you have to complete.

Accessing academic sources

For subject-specific advice, take a look at the link below: