For college term papers, research papers, or essays, students may be told to use academic sources. However, real bona fide academic sources may be too difficult for most college students to understand and use meaningfully for a paper. They may only begin to deal with real academic sources in their third or fourth year of college, and it is mainly graduate students that begin to engage with real academic sources regularly. Students are also told to avoid popular or general sources, but there are some popular sources that are better than others, which can be used.
I find this two-way distinction confusing and unhelpful. Instead, in my courses I use a three-way distinction:
- Popular sources, which are generally not cited in college papers.
- Professional sources, which are better quality non-academic sources that are suitable for college papers, especially in the first two years of college, and in introductory courses.
- Academic sources, by academic experts for other academic experts; most may be too difficult for college students.
These can be distinguished by the following criteria.
- Author: The author may be (a) a trained academic expert, (b) a professional expert — one with years of expertise in a professional field and a position of credibility; or (c) a non-expert who is not really qualified, credible, or reliable.
- Audience: The intended readership could be (a) a very general audience — anyone who can read, (b) an educated audience with some basic background or serious interest in the topic, or (c) an academic audience of scholars or researchers.
- Information: The information may be general, common knowledge, or superficial information, or information that is well researched, specific, precise, accurate, and very detailed; objective, or subjective and biased; primary or secondary; or completely unreliable.
- Quality control: There may or may not be strong quality control measures in place to ensure that the information is precise, detailed, and accurate.
These in turn influence the writing tone and style, and where and how the material is disseminated. For more, see my wiki page on this, and my Youtube video, an introduction to evaluating sources.