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WRIT 0020-305 Critical Writing Program: Craft of Prose: Academic Sources

Academic Sources

Academic or "scholarly, peer reviewed" articles are written by and further the research of faculty members or scholars, who come from all disciplines and fields. Regardless of the field, academic literature is supported by in depth research, looking at available evidence. That evidence can be textual as in literature, archival and object based as in history and archaeology, observable, or numerical. 

Penn Libraries subscribes to hundreds of databases, which provide access to scholarly articles or to information about those articles. You will engage in different kinds of searches, depending on your research. Often that might include known-item searching (e.g., citation chasing) or database searching with keywords. Commonly, you will use two categories of databases: multi-disciplinary (that cover many disciplines) and discipline-specific (those that focus on one or a small number of closely related fields). 

Known Item Searching

Known-item searching is working with a specific source -- you have a title and author. When you have this "known item," you may want "chase it." Citation chasing can go in two directions -- backwards and forwards. If you have found an article or similar work that is important to your paper you may want to follow up on the scholarship relied on by your author --- this is chasing backwards -- looking at the foundation of the scholarship you are reading. You can also "chase" forward by seeing who has cited your author. This may show you how the research has moved along. Articles+ and Google Scholar are good resources for citation chasing because they have broad disciplinary coverage.

When to use: When you have found a reference in one of your readings or discussions to an article that sounds as if it might be helpful, you can find out whether others have cited this article using the known item search strategy in Google Scholar. Simply put the title in quotation marks--”Scenarios for Demand Growth of Metals in Electricity Generation,” for example--and Google will show you a “cited by” figure. Clicking on that number will show you all the scholarly articles that cite your author’s article. 


  • Finding out who has cited your article will lead you to more recent articles, which may be related to your topic. It leads you forward in the scholarly conversation. 
  • Seeing how many times your article has been cited gives you an idea of how important it is within the conversation. 
  • Looking at the references within your article helps you understand what kinds of sources and knowledge are fundamental to your author's research.


  • You may need to look through a number of marginally related articles 
  • Those citing the article may disagree with or be citing your article because they question the research
  • Searching backwards may lead you to information that is dated and no longer accurate or accepted.
  • You may discover scholars who disagree with your selected article’s findings or methods, which is valuable information for creating a substantive white paper

Watch a short, 4 minute video on "citation chasing."

Distinguishing Sources

Distinguishing Sources
Most academic literature undergoes peer review, which means that peer scholars from the same or closely related disciplines review submitted papers before they are approved for publication. These publications, and their network of citations and research make up a form of conversation among scholars. 

Some tips for recognizing academic literature (as opposed to news stories, op-eds, working papers, and grey literature):  

  • Academic articles always have footnotes, endnotes, and/or bibliographies that cite other scholarship. If you don't see some form of citation, it isn't an academic article.
  • Academic articles include information about the authors and their qualifications -- their academic credentials, where they teach or carry out their research, often contact information 
  • The journal publishing the article has an editorial board made up of scholars in the field
  • Your instructors will likely be familiar with the journal and recognize the names of the scholars publishing in that journal 

Grey Literature: Grey literature may not have a specific author and is usually distributed by the organization or entity, which may or may not be a not-for-profit. The organization will have a mission and you can get a feel for their perspective if you read through the mission or "about" pages. Academic literature will always be distributed by a commercial or university press publisher. Much of this literature is made available on the organizations website. See the next tab for more on grey literature.

Using Databases to find Journal Articles

You will search for academic literature in databases. These databases may cover journals from a wide variety of subjects, fields, and disciplines, or they may focus on just one subject area. 

Multi-Discipinary Databases

Multi-Disciplinary Databases  have broad coverage across subject areas and fields of study. These multi-subject databases may include articles from STEM, humanities, and social science fields. Some Examples include: 

When to use: If you find that your results from citation hunting are too narrow, try do the same search in a multi-disciplinary database. This can help you discover new vocabulary and angles on your topic.


  • You may not know the precise discipline of your topic
  • An interdisciplinary approach may lead you to new insights
  • May reveal that different disciplines approach your topic differently
  • Familiarizes you with the specialized language of different disciplines


  • Potentially more difficult to narrow your topic
  • More likely to get irrelevant results

Discipline-Specific Databases

Discipline-specific databases cover the journals, and books within one discipline. You can think of your prospective major as a discipline. A discipline specific database could be devoted to sociology (Sociological Abstracts) or psychology (Psycinfo), history (America: History and Life) or literature (MLA International Bibliography). Talk with your professor or librarian to learn more about databases representing specific fields of study. You can also search through the Penn Libraries' database index. Some examples include: 


When to use: One approach is to begin your search in the more specific database and then move to the multi-disciplinary database to compare your results with similar publications from the viewpoint of scholars working in different disciplines.


  • You can search more with fewer terms 
  • Shorter list of sources because the database will be smaller and more focused
  • Subject terms, academic vocabulary will be specific for your topic 
  • Introduces you to the major journals in the discipline
  • Reveals authors in “conversation” with each other, building upon, criticizing, responding to each other’s work 


  • Smaller database means that you will get fewer returns
  • You will need to be familiar with the disciplines' terminology and ways of expressing concepts
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