The Value of Peer-Reviewed Sources
By Judith A. Jablonski, PhD, MSLIS, MA
Senior Online Librarian at American Public University
“College-level writing involves learning to do college-level research. Open web sources like Wikipedia, Ask.com, and Answers.com are not appropriate for college-level research.” 
The above is text from an APUS ENGL101 syllabus. You may be wondering, “Why isn’t it ok to use Wikipedia, Ask.com, and the like? And just what is meant by college- level writing and research?”
In What Is “College-Level” Writing? (2006) co-editor Patrick Sullivan of Manchester Community College listed the following characteristics of college-level writing.
- A willingness to evaluate ideas and issues carefully.
- Some skill at analysis and higher-level thinking.
- The ability to shape and organize material effectively.
- The ability to integrate some of the material from the reading skillfully.
- The ability to follow the standard rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. 
What makes college writing different is the expectation that students demonstrate analytical thinking which, according to the Purdue Online Writing lab (OWL), “breaks down an issue or an idea into its component parts, evaluates the issue or idea, and presents this breakdown and evaluation to the audience.” 
An expected part of college-level writing is the use of scholarly sources when writing your research papers. Your credibility as an author rests, in part, on the credibility of your sources. A research paper about racism in the military is going to have more impact and be taken more seriously by your readers if the authors you are citing were published in a scholarly journal such as Peace Review  rather than the popular newsstand magazine Psychology Today. 
When we talk about scholarly research we mean articles, books, or reports (print or electronic) that are based on original research or experimentation. The scholars being referred to are typically scientists, academics, or other experts in a given field who are often connected with a college, university, or similar institution.
An important aspect of most scholarly articles is that they are peer-reviewed, which is defined by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as “The process by which a scholarly work (such as a paper or a research proposal) is checked by a group of experts in the same field to make sure it meets the necessary standards before it is published or accepted.” 
Here’s how it works. An author submits his or her article to a specific journal, the journal editor then relays it anonymously to several experts in the author’s field (i.e., his or her peers). They critique the article for quality and accuracy, and then send their reviews back to the editor. An article that is favorably reviewed (or refereed) by these experts and editor(s) is now peer-reviewed and may be published.
The purpose of peer review is to maintain quality control in research. This is accomplished by restricting the publication of inaccurate findings, unsupported claims, and personal views. Using peer-reviewed sources in your paper means that these sources have been evaluated by scholars in your field for quality and importance.
As a student researcher, you’ll want to keep in mind a few things when looking for scholarly resources:
- Not all of the information in a peer-reviewed journal is actually peer- reviewed. The types of content not refereed include editorials, letters to the editor, book reviews, etc. These may not be accepted by your professor so you’ll want to be sure to check with her/him.
- Scholarly publication is based on the honor system. Editors (and readers) of journals assume that the research and subsequent report/article have been ethically prepared. The peer review process might occasionally detect fraud, but is not set up to do so.
- Just because a journal title is listed in a university library’s catalog does not automatically mean it is a peer-reviewed journal. Academic libraries typically provide a range of resource types, including so-called popular sources. Popular sources are publications like newspapers and magazines that do not typically impose strict publishing guidelines on authors. (When you are looking for opinion, news, entertainment or pop culture references, popular sources are your best bet, though.) 
Students are sometimes confused about how to determine if an article or book is scholarly or peer-reviewed. At the APUS Library we refer them to these FAQs from our LibAnswers Knowledge Base:
- What does “peer reviewed” mean? (This one has a great comparison table for scholarly vs popular article.)
- How do I find peer reviewed journals or articles?
- Are books considered “scholarly” publications?
- Why aren’t websites like Wikipedia, blogs or Ask.com considered to be scholarly?
If you aren’t sure if the source you’ve retrieved is peer-reviewed after using the chart in the first FAQ above, or if you need help locating sources, you can always ask an APUS librarian for help! You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org, via Live Chat (schedule here), or you can send us a SMS/text-message at 3044006470. 
 From an archived version of an APUS ENGL101 syllabus.
 Sullivan, P. & H. Tinberg (Eds.). (2006). What is “College-Level” Writing? Urbana, Ill: National Council of Teachers of English. Available at http://wac.colostate.edu/books/collegelevel/
 From the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)
 Peace Review is edited by Dr. Robert Elias of the University of San Francisco and published by Taylor and Francis/Routledge Publishing Company. Its Aims & Scope page includes a Peer Review Policy. This journal is available in the APUS Library (login required).
 Psychology Today is a bimonthly U.S. consumer magazine that focuses on human behavior and is not peer-reviewed. This journal is available in the APUS Library (login required).
 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. “Peer review.” Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/peerreview
 If your assignment requires the use of a popular resource, check out our FAQ for help: How do I find a “popular” article?
 The complete schedule for the APUS Librarians can be accessed via our FAQ: I need help with the library. How can I reach a librarian?
About the Author
Senior Online Librarian Dr. Judith Jablonski has more than 25 years of experience in special and academic library work; metadata management, and higher education instruction in the Social Sciences and the Humanities. She has taught online, onsite, and blended courses at the undergraduate and graduate level in the areas of information organization, database indexing, Freshman Composition, professional and academic writing, and science fiction and fantasy literature. She also serves as the Graduate Studies Librarian here at APUS.