19 Popular, Professional, & Scholarly

Teaching & Learning, University Libraries

One of the handiest and thus most-often-used categorizations of sources is by the expertise of their intended audiences. In this categorization, sources are either meant for everybody (popular sources), for only a college-educated or otherwise well-prepared audience (substantive popular sources), for professionals in an occupation (professional sources), or for scholars, students, and other people who want a deep understanding of a subject (scholarly sources).

Considering the intended audience—how expert one has to be to understand the information—can help you figure out whether the source has sufficient thoroughness/complexity and credibility to meet your needs. It can also help you figure out where to look for these kinds of sources because sources in each category tend to hang out together.

When categorizing this way, it’s probably better to consider the source itself (say, a specific article in The New York Times or a specific PBS documentary) rather than only its publisher (The New York Times or PBS).  Some publishers have strong processes in place to help ensure the credibility of all their products.

There are varying degrees of expertise required to understand the sources explained below. For college writing, substantive popular, professional, and scholarly sources are usually your best bets because of their combination of thoroughness/complexity and the credibility of their publishers.

Popular Sources – These sources, such as books, TV shows, newspaper and magazine articles, podcasts, social media, and most websites, are meant for a large general audience and are generally easy to purchase or available for free. Their subjects include news, politics, government, health, music, art, hobbies, what to buy, entertainment, and opinions about the news—anything, really, that we could be interested in.

These types of sources are more attractive than scholarly journals because they have catchy titles, attractive artwork, and many advertisements. Some might quote named sources, identify how they got their experience and expertise, and provide links to other sources. But you’ll not likely see a formal list of footnotes or references at the end.

These sources are published by both commercial and nonprofit publishers. They are written by staff writers, journalists, and sometimes just by people enthusiastic about the subject matter. News and magazine articles are published after review and approval from editors or producers. But with other examples of popular sources, such as the many forms of social media, they are published without any review at all.

The online and print magazine Men’s Health is an example of a popular source and there are millions of others.

Understanding the content of popular sources is usually not difficult, although a subset of popular sources called substantive popular sources requires more effort. You will need to use your critical thinking skills to determine whether a source is a popular or substantive popular source.

Substantive Popular Sources – This category is a subset of popular sources. Unlike the rest of popular sources, they are aimed at a college-educated audience or those otherwise well-informed in the subject matter, even though they are available to people in general. They may be more difficult for a complete novice to understand.

Their creators are serious about their intent to inform and want to be thorough. These sources are frequently about the news, health, science, societal problems, politics, and government–but they can be about any topic. Even when they are about entertainers or entertainment, they are intended to inform more than to entertain.

Both credibility of the author and publisher, as well as the complexity of the content, are important when identifying this category of sources. To be considered a substantive popular source, a source must be both published by a credible author or publisher and provide an in-depth, well-researched investigation and analysis of a topic or issue.

For all but the most well-staffed news publishers, news sources are more likely to be considered substantive popular if they are created later in the information life cycle than early with breaking news because it is difficult to provide their thoroughness and detail earlier for all but the most well-staffed new publishers. (See the information lifecycle later in this section.)

Examples of the difference between popular and substantive popular sources:

  • Opera, classical music, R&B, jazz, and hip-hop available on TV, radio, or a digital source are popular sources. But a PBS documentary about any of those same kinds of music is more likely to be a popular substantive source because rather than offering the experience of the music, its purpose is to inform and its publisher has processes in place to ensure accuracy.
  • A TV news or print or online newspaper story reporting that a local group has taken up the issue of the need for more affordable housing in your town is likely to be a popular source. But a detailed story in the Washington Post about how zoning codes across the country make it difficult or impossible to build affordable housing is more likely to be a popular substantive source. That’s not only because of the Post’s processes for accuracy but because of the complexity of the story.
  • A news story in the Columbus, Ohio newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, reporting that 56 exotic animals escaped from a farm in Ohio the previous day is likely to be a popular source. But a Dispatch story a year later about the animals escaping and reactions of neighbors since that day has more chance of being a substantive popular story. That’s not only because of the Dispatch’s processes for accuracy but because the later story has a better chance of being more thorough and complex. And a New Yorker magazine article about the fight against international wildlife trafficking is also likely to be a substantive popular source for the same reasons, including the length of time New Yorker authors usually have to create most articles.


For information on using news articles as sources (from newspapers in print and online, broadcast news outlets, news aggregators, news databases, news feeds, social media, blogs, and citizen journalism), see News as a Source.

Professional Sources – Professional magazine articles (in such publications as Music Teacher and Plastic Surgical Nursing (OSU only) are meant for people in a particular profession and are often accessible through a professional organization. Staff writers or other professionals in the targeted field write these articles at a level and with the language to be understood by everyone in the profession.

Additionally, they are:

  • About trends and news from the targeted field, book reviews, and case studies.
  • Often less than 10 pages, some of which may contain footnotes and references.
  • Usually published by professional associations and commercial publishers.
  • Published after approval from an editor.

Scholarly Sources – Scholarly journal articles (such as those published in the Journal of Plant Science and Education and Child Psychology) are meant for scholars and students in a particular field of study. While they can also be read by members of the general public who have an interest in the topic, since they are written by experts, they often assume that the reader will already have a significant amount of existing knowledge on the topic. The authors may use discipline-specific terminology or reference developments or events that may be unfamiliar to those who do not have experience in the field. As a result, they can sometimes be challenging to understand for those who do not have a background in the field. Researchers and scholars write these articles to present new knowledge and further understanding of their field of study.

Additionally, they are:

  • Where findings of research projects, data and analytics, and case studies usually appear first.
  • Often long (usually over 10 pages) and always include footnotes and references.
  • Usually published by universities, professional associations, and commercial publishers.
  • Published after approval by peer review or from the journal’s editor.

See Scholarly Articles as Sources for more detail.

This graphic shows examples of sources on the same topic categorized by intended audience:


Examples of the same topic categorized by source type.
“Examples” is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license by Teaching & Learning, University Libraries. The infographic template and images are provided by Canva under the free content license per Canva’s terms of use.

                               Example of Popular vs Scholarly Source:

Psychology Today    VS      The American Journal of Psychology                               

(popular)                                    (scholarly)



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