Information types & formats 1: sources classified by audience

Why do you need to learn about types and formats of information?  Well, for one, it’s one of the learning outcomes for this class.  More importantly,  the inability to find and use the right kinds of sources is one of the major roadblocks between students and good grades on history papers.  Finally, the more you know about finding the right kinds of sources, the easier it is to find and identify them.

This reading introduces the main types and formats of information in all fields, including history.  As you’ll discover later in the reading,  history sources are not as easy to distinguish as those in other fields.  Future readings will look at more specific types of sources.

Information Formats

Let’s start with the easy part:  formats.  The word format has a number of meanings; for this post, we’re looking at the format or makeup or composition of something.  The most common formats you’ll deal with doing academic research are print and online; however, there are others such as  CDs, DVDs, streaming music & videos, and microforms.

Most instructors accept a variety of formats as long as you choose relevant sources of the correct information type.

Information Types

There are three basic ways to divide information types for academic purposes.  These are:

  1. sources classified by audience
  2. sources classified by closeness
  3. sources classified by quality measure

These classifications refer to non-fiction (with a few rare exceptions.)

Sources classified by audience

The three main types of sources classified by audience are:

  1. popular
  2. scholarly (also known as peer reviewed or refereed)
  3. trade

Popular sources are those that are created for the general public.  They may be any format:  print, online, DVD, etc.

Popular sources:

  • are written in every day language; if there are technical or unusual terms, the terms are defined & examples given
  • are often written on broad topics or as an introduction to a topic.  Usually  written by journalists or freelance writers  or “anonymous” (usually an editor or staff writer.)
  • rarely have notes or bibliographies (reference lists).  Some will have lists that contain suggestions for further reading and/or notes that provide more information on the content
  • are often very colorful with a lot of illustrations and photos
  • are found in grocery stores, bookstores and airports in addition to libraries.  Many are also available on the web.
  • may be print or online books, magazines, and newspapers, or general websites.

Examples: 


Scholarly sources are those that are created for experts and for students studying the subject area.  They may be any format:  print, online, DVDs etc.

Scholarly sources:

  • are written by experts in the field
  • are written for an audience of other experts (and students who have to learn the information)
  • are usually peer reviewed or refereed
    • this means they been judged by a panel of fellow experts and found worthy of publication
  • have notes and a reference list or bibliography
    • in some history and arts and humanities sources, there is no bibliography or reference list.  All the necessary information is given in footnotes.
  • are often published by, or in conjunction with,  universities, museums or other institutions
    • they may also be published by specialty academic publishers such as Oxford, Wiley or Elsevier
  • most common types are: journal articles and books, either print or online
  • there are also a few scholarly websites

 All scholarly sources have the things listed above in common.  However,  there are differences between scholarly sources in the sciences, technology & engineering, social science and professional fields and scholarly sources in history and the arts & humanities.

Scholarly sources in the science, technical, social science and professional fields (health, business, etc.)

  • Report on experiments, studies or research performed by the authors
  • Are usually written about a very narrow, focused topic
    • literature reviews are an exception:  they review previous research on a topic
  • Use technical language with a lot of specialized words

Scholarly sources in history and the arts & humanities

  • are written about original research on an historical, literary, artistic or performance topic
  • are usually focused, but occasionally cover broad topics
  • rarely use technical language; instead, they use formal, academic language

Examples


Trade sources are written for practitioners in a field.  They focus more on “how-to” information.  They may be any format.

Trade sources:

  • contain practical, how-to information as well as information about the field, such as best practices, finding a job, rules and regulations, etc.
  • may have some scholarly research articles, but focus is practical
  • use language and terms specific to that field 
  • are often produced by professional associations or publishers who specialize in the field

NOTE:  the line between scholarly, popular and trade can be hard to determine.  In some fields, such as health science, education and criminal justice, an instructor may allow you to use a well- researched trade article in place of a scholarly article – ASK FIRST!

Examples:


Other types of sources classified by audience

  • Textbooks
    • are usually in a category by themselves
    • are closest to trade, since they are teaching students about a field
    • as a rule, you should not use textbooks as a source for academic research
  • Newsletters
    • news about a subject or profession
    • can be very general: for example, news about science
    • can be very specific: for example, news for passenger airline pilots
    • always popular or trade, never scholarly
  • Reviews

    • opinion pieces about books, movies, music, plays, etc.

    • can be found in scholarly, popular or trade publications in print and on the web
    • b

      ook reviews in scholarly journals are NOT scholarly

    • Use reviews for background information, do NOT use them for academic research

      • Exception: people researching performing arts productions often use reviews of productions

  • Editorials, opinion pieces, letters

    • o

      pinions by different people on a variety of subjects

    • c

      an be found in scholarly, popular or trade publications in print and on the web

    • c

      an be used as examples in academic research – not as articles

    • t

      hey are popular or trade even if they appear in a scholarly publication

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