Popular sources are generally not cited in college papers, but there are exceptions. These contrast with professional sources, which are more reputable sources which can often be cited in college papers, especially introductory and first and second year courses, and academic sources, which are not so commonly used in college papers except in more advanced courses (they are of course commonly used in graduate level work). These types of sources are distinguished by the following characteristics.
- The author is not an expert, neither a qualified academic expert, nor even a professional expert, i.e., s/he does not even have professional expertise in the topic, e.g., from years of experience in a particular business or profession.
- The audience is very general, including young or old, less educated and more educated readers—basically, anyone who can read.
- The information is superficial, usually not very in-depth, and perhaps not very accurate or precise.
- The information is often secondary; the author has obtained the information from another source and may not even cite it or may not cite it very carefully.
- The information could be common knowledge, for example, the information in general reference books, and thus one does not generally cite encyclopedias and dictionaries.
- The information could be subjective or opinionated.
- The information could anecdotal, and one person's experience does not make necessarily validate a claim or make a claim true.
- The information might be entertainment driven or commercially driven.
- The information could be fairly carefully researched, possibly good information, but not good enough for a college paper
- Quality control mechanisms
- These might be weak or altogether lacking. There may be simply editors and publishers who are concerned as much about the general factuality of the contents as well as its marketability or commercial potential. The concern is not primarily for depth, quality, accuracy, or precision of the information.
- Popular trade books
- The authors of such works are not reliable experts, be it academic or professional experts. These are written for entertainment or infotainment value as well as for educational purposes. In non-fiction books, the contents might be generally good, but not good enough for college papers. The information is often secondary, subjective, or anecdotal. Some of the information may be over-generalized or oversimplified, and some information may not be accurate.
- Popular periodicals
- These include infotainment and entertainment driven publications, such as Sports Illustrated, entertainment magazines, and most popular magazines. This also includes smaller newspapers, which do not have the resources of professional news outlets.
- Standard reference works
- These represent common knowledge, such as general knowledge of definitions, or common knowledge of a particular field (such as an encyclopedia entry about the Pythagorean theorem). Instead, more specialized sources can be consulted. For linguistic information about words (history and etymology) a linguistic resource like the Oxford English Dictionary would be a valid academic source.
- These represent basic knowledge of a particular field for beginners, and the information is not new to those in the field.
- Online reference works
- These not only contain common knowledge, but the authorship of a particular article may be unclear. Since anyone can edit some online works like Wikipedia entries, the authorship and authors’ credentials are uncertain.
- Popular web sites
- As with trade books, the authors may be unqualified, or the information may be unreliable or superficial.
- Biased media sites and publications
- Some sites like Fox News are partly entertainment driven, cater to a particular segment of the audience with particular political views, and try to persuade viewers to certain viewpoints, rather than doing objective journalism. Both left-wing and right-wing sites and publications fall in this category. These stand in contrast to world-famous news outlets that are considered more professional sources; these might lean in a certain political direction, but they still do objective journalism and provide intelligent analysis.
- Unreliable sources
- Unreliable sources include hoaxes, scams, propaganda sites, humor sites, and sites promoting extreme views, fake news, conspiracy theories, or falsified information.
3 Citing popular sources
Due to the unreliability of the information, popular sites are generally not cited in college papers. However, there are some principled exceptions.
- Interesting example. One might cite a popular source for an interesting example, e.g., in the introductory paragraph for a first-year college paper, but it would be better to use a professional source instead.
- Differing viewpoints. If writing about a current topic, one would cite more more professional sources or academic sources for information, but then a writer might cite examples of conservative and liberal opinions on a particular matter; in such a case, a writer could then cite Fox News for conservative opinions and Mother Jones for liberal opinions as examples of differing viewpoints.
- Periodicals. A smaller newspaper or popular periodical could be cited if it has broken a story if it is a primary source of information, e.g., about a local event or something in the magazine’s interest area.
- Examples of literary, media, or social phenomena. In a humanities or social science class, a writer might site popular media, TV shows, movies, or publications as examples of literary, media, social, or other phenomena that the writer is researching. This could include, e.g.:
- popular adaptations of elements from Shakespeare plays in fictional movies or TV
- examples of film or media techniques in popular shows or movies
- popular examples of a linguistic expression or example
- popular expressions of social attitudes
- popular examples of social phenomena
3.1 Referencing popular citations
Popular sources in humanities papers can easily be cited in the Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA citation system, in the in-text citations, and these can be included in the end references or works cited.
In social science papers, these could be handled differently. For social or linguistic examples in a paper that uses the APA referencing system, the APA system could be used just for citing the academic sources. Then for citing popular examples from popular media of the phenomenon in question, these could simply be footnoted. The full reference information could be included in a footnote, and this information would not be included in the end references.
4 See also
- Academic versus non-academic writing
- Google Scholar searches
- Academic versus non-academic sources
- Popular sources
- Unreliable sources
- Professional sources
- Academic sources