Category Archives: Information Types & Formats

Information types and formats and why you need to know them, plus posts.

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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Information types & formats 2: sources classified by closeness

From the first post:
There are three basic ways to divide information sources for academic purposes.  These are:
  1. sources classified by audience
  2. sources classified by closeness
  3. sources classified by quality measure

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

Sources classified by closeness
The second way to classify academic sources is by closeness.  Closeness to what?  Closeness to the original event, original time period, original research, or original idea.
The two main types of sources classified by closeness are:
  1. primary
  2. secondary

This classification usually refers to non-fiction, but does occasionally include fiction (for example:  using a Greek play as a primary source for a history article.)

Primary sources are those that are closest to an original event,  original time, original research or original idea.

Examples:

  • An eyewitness account in print, audio or video, including oral histories.
  • An original document such as letters, contracts, deeds, and even an early graphic novel written in Greek about the labors of Hercules.
  • A YouTube or news video shot by someone who was there (or by security cameras, CCTV, etc.)
  • Memoirs and autobiographies
  • A report on research written by the people who did the research, usually published as a journal article, but sometimes published as a monograph.
  • A news or documentary photograph
  • An object, such as a mummy (from the Louvre Museum, Paris), a painting, or an old car

Primary sources can be popular, scholarly or trade, but in history, they are often popular.

Adapted primary sources

Adaptations of primary sources include photographs and  reproductions of original objects, and translations from an original language.  Adapted primary sources provide access to primary sources such as paintings, mummies, manuscripts, statues, Greek inscriptions, and buildings that are inaccessible for a variety of reasons.

Adaptations usually count as a primary source, but check with your professor to be sure.
HOWEVER:  you must use adapted sources  produced by reputable groups such as museums, universities, respected publishers and so on.   For most undergraduate research, you can use Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons,  and Flickr Creative Commons for images IF the image includes source information and shows copyright information.

Examples of adapted sources:

It’s still best to look at the original source if you can, because:
  • when you adapt or reproduce something, you change it
  • you can’t tell what the original is made of  or how it was made
  • in the case of photographs and 3-D objects, you can only see one side

Virtual reality techniques provide 3-D views, but still don’t capture information such as texture, ink composition, material, and rarely show pen marks, chisel marks, etc.

When using translations, either use critical editions or choose reputable publishers such as university presses and other academic publishers.  (In critical editions, the translator tells you why s/he made the choices s/he did in when translating the text.)
Secondary sources are further away from the original event,  time, research or idea.  They may be::

Primary & secondary works can be popular or scholarly or trade.

Examples:

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Information types & formats 3: sources classified by quality measure

From post 1:

There are three basic ways to divide information sources 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.

Sources classified by quality measure:

  • Peer reviewed / Refereed
  • Edited
  • No determination

Peer reviewed & refereed

Peer Reviewed and referred mean essentially the same thing:
  • An article is submitted to a journal or a monograph to a book publisher.
  • The editor sends it out to a 2-3 anonymous reviewers making sure the author  is anonymous too.

    • In very specialized fields, reviewers & authors may know or guess each other’s names, but they’re still supposed to be objective.
  • The reviewers are experts in the article or book’s subject area.
  • They review the information and send back comments for the author.
  • The author fixes any problems and eventually the information is published.
  • Sometimes the problems are too severe to fix or the author chooses not to fix them and the information is not published.
The review of the information by other experts helps to ensure that most information in scholarly journals  or in monographs is of high quality.  In general, the process works well; however, it can sometimes  make it difficult for new ideas to get published.  Occasionally, bad information makes it into publication.  Often, this is because more recent information renders the older information useless. Sometimes, there is fraud on the part of the author.   Fortunately, this is rare.  If fraud or significant error is discovered,  the publisher retracts the article or book.  One famous example is the article that first claimed vaccines cause autism and bowel disease.  After numerous studies, no supporting evidence has been discovered.  What has been found is that the author fabricated data and was involved in a scheme to make money on testing for people bringing court cases.
Edited
With edited sources, an author turns in work to an editor, who then suggests changes if necessary.  Edited sources include journal, magazine & newspaper articles, and books.  Websites, newscasts and blogs often have editors as well.
  • An editor for a journal or magazine or newspaper or book looks over the information.
  • It may also be looked at by a fact checker, who makes sure the author’s claims are factually correct, and a copy editor who reviews for grammar, spelling, etc.
  • The information is published.
  • Usually, the review is not as rigorous as that done by peer reviewers or referees; however,  many edited sources are of excellent quality.  Often, editors are experts in a specific field.    Such articles in journals may be considered scholarly or academic, but not peer reviewed.
  • Researchers may have problems evaluating an edited source because it is difficult to judge the ability of the editor.
  • Most edited sources are popular. 
    • Exception:  books of essays by experts in the field can be scholarly or trade
No determination of quality
Often, especially on the web, there is no determination of the quality of an information source by outside experts, either peer reviewers, editors,  or other experts.   For example: many blogs and personal websites fall into this category.
 In some cases, editing is done, but it difficult to determine the quality of the editing from the information given.  Wikipedia is a good example.  Most articles are edited by whoever wants to do the edits.  The featured and good categories of articles do have higher standards of editing, but even in those two instances, you don’t know who the editors are or what their expertise is.
 

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