Understanding Scholarly Articles

What Makes a Source "Scholarly"?

Scholarly books and journals are formal sources written by researchers and scholars who know a ton about a particular topic and want to contribute to the greater knowledge and understanding of that topic.  They are written for other scholars who study and do research.  These sources are often "peer-reviewed," which means that other experts who know a lot about that same topic have looked over the article and given it the thumbs-up.

What all that means is that scholarly sources are meaty, dense, and chock-full of content.  That said, they have been structured in a particular way to make them easier for you to find and to then digest as a reader.  Understanding how they are put together can help save you time when you are looking for scholarly sources and synthesizing them for your research projects.

Spotting a Scholarly Source.

When you're on the hunt for scholarly sources, you always want to be aware and on the look-out.  You can tell you've spotted one by looking at the--

  1. Author affiliation: "Scholars" are often associated with research institutions, such as universities, colleges, and government agencies.
  2. Publication information: Becoming "scholarly" doesn't happen overnight--it takes time.  Although the Internet and online publications are changing things a bit, books and articles published in journals still have to go through a hefty review process and publication cycle before you can read them.  Time is money, and as a general rule, publishers wouldn't spend all of that time publishing information they don't feel confident about.
  3. References: Does the source you've uncovered have a list of references?  Does it tell you where supporting ideas are coming from at the time they are referenced in the source using in-text citations?  If it does, it's a sign you're onto something scholarly!
  4. Structure: Scholarly sources, especially articles, usually follow a particular formula for how they're formatted.  This makes it easier for the reader to find certain information faster that might be more useful for their research.

Scholarly Source Structure.

So, you have a scholarly source--great!  Now, to take the time to read and understand it.  Of the whole research process, this part probably takes the longest, but by knowing how a scholarly source is structured, you can quickly get to the information that will be most useful for you.


The Abstract gives you a brief summary of the source.  This is a great place to start if you find an article you think might be interesting based on the title.  It can help you decide if that particular source is worth spending some quality time with.  Keep in mind that this summary is from the point of view of the author and what the author thought was most important.  If a source seems useful, you'll want to get deeper to see what you think is most important when reading it from the perspective of your research question.


The Introduction offers a broad overview of the background and purpose of the source.  It gives valuable context and sets the stage for what you'll be reading next.

Background/Literature Review.

Before doing original research, like conducting a study, authors do their own research reading articles just like you're doing right now.  That research most often results in a Literature Review, which paints a picture of the information that is currently available on a topic.  By creating this overall picture, scholars can point out the gaps--holes where there is little to no current information--that they hope to fill with their original research.


Formal scholarly sources often talk about an original study.  There are all different kinds of studies that are appropriate under different circumstances, from anything like an informal survey to an intense clinical trial.  The details of that study are outlined in the Methods section.  This section talks about the design of the study--what kind of study was used and why, and how the authors got their results from the study.  How the study was conducted can tell you a lot about the validity of the source; if the authors used good practices, you can feel more confident about the accuracy of the information you're reading.


The Results section separates the results of the study from the methodology.  This allows you to get down to the nitty-gritty and look at just the outcomes of the research. 


While the Results section shows you the research outcomes, the Discussion section is where the authors make observations about those outcomes that they found.  It talks about any generalizations or trends the authors saw in the findings, and in what ways those findings either agree or disagree with their original research question or the background research that they did before conducting the study.  This is a really great section to consult early on when you are trying to determine if a particular source is right for your project.


After discussing the results, the Conclusion is where the author makes a definitive decision regarding the relationship of the outcomes of the study and the original research question that the study was designed to answer.  This is where everything is wrapped up succinctly for the reader.

Need more on Scholarly Sources and Research?

  • Check out our Evaluating Sources page to revisit how to determine if an article is worth your time.
  • Follow The Research Process to complete your research assignments more quickly and easily.
  • Ask a Librarian for assistance in finding useful articles for your projects.
  • Remember, if you aren't sure, always ask your professor.