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Can I use non-academic sources in my essay?

One issue that can be confusing in social science essay writing is whether or not, and under what circumstances, you can use non-peer-reviewed, non-academic sources such as news articles, blogs, podcasts or youtube videos. Your lecturers and tutors are quick to point out that you shouldn’t, but then there always seem to be exceptions. This blog post looks in more detail at what these exceptions are, how to make use of them, and what pitfalls to avoid.

How academic sources are different

The first thing to be aware of, however, is that academic sources should always form the backbone of your discussion. Non-academic sources should only ever be an addition to this, and should never replace them. This should be reflected in your bibliography. There should be no reduction of academic sources at the expense of non-academic ones.

This is due to one of the principles of academic writing: The starting point of any study, book, journal article or student essay is always to look at what already exists on the topic. What have other scholars written on it, and how does your book/article/essay build on this existing body of knoweldge? In the hierarchy of knowledge claims (at least as academics see it), academic studies, that is ones that were conducted by university-trained staff, usually within the institutional framework of a university, and peer-reviewed before publication, are considered of the highest quality. And it is only on these foundations that your essay or dissertation will be considered a sound and trustworthy piece of writing.

[Quick explainer: ‘Peer-review’ refers to a process that academic journal articles (and to some extent books) need to go through before publication. They are reviewed and validated by ‘peers’, experts in the particular field of study. Many such articles never make it through that process, and most are amended according to the suggestions of the reviewers. This is a method of quality control, and makes sure (at least in theory. It’s not like this method doesn’t have its critics) that whatever data and whatever knowledge claims are published are sound and reliable.]

The use and non-use of non-academic sources

There are essentially three legitimate ways in which you can use non-academic sources. The first is for illustration. This is when you take examples reported in the news that serve as an illustration of a topic you are discussing. This can be a powerful addition to your essay, especially if it adds timely and current examples, and in a way helps contextualise your essay with what is currently going on in the world. However, there are some guidelines you should follow here. First, make sure your news sources are good quality, and, while of course not peer-reviewed-reliable, they should at least be ‘reliable-enough’, reputable sources. Good quality journalism such as The Times, Guardian, Economist etc. are fine. Steer away from the more tabloidy publications. And follow the referencing guidelines outlined below. If you want to cite statistics or other data discussed in the news article, you should always trace this data back to the actual study that was conducted, and cite this study rather than the news article.

The second instance is when you use non-academic sources as the object of your analysis. At its most developed, this can be a systematic discourse analysis, in which you examine the way, for example, social class is discussed in newspaper publications, or how neoliberal ideas were embedded in the political speeches and texts of New Labour (a famous study by Norman Fairclough, this quick 4-page review article (JSTOR) gives a good impression of what such a systematic discourse analysis can look like). My own PhD was a discourse analysis of how corruption was discussed in the formative periods of the modern nation state in Germany and the UK, in newspapers, legal documents, and parliamentary debates. In a more scaled-down version, you can do something similar, even in a short 1,500 word essay, by looking at a few examples of, say, how race is discussed in political speeches, class is discussed in tabloid newspapers, or gender is represented in advertisements [PDF of Goffman’s study]. In this case the quality of the source is not important, and you might even be interested specifically in how low-quality tabloidy news sources represent a specific theme. The difference to the above usage as illustration is that in the above, you observe what is going on in the world (illustration of, for example, racist incidents). Here, you observe the observors, examine how they represent specific topics, and question their motives for doing so in the way they are doing it.

The third, somewhat less common instance of using non-academic sources in your essay is when you want to discuss a claim or hypothesis made in, for example, an editorial of a newspaper, a political speech, or a blog or podcast of a renowned academic. This last example is indeed where it can become confusing, as the person making claims here is an academic (hence this is kind of an academic source), but the format in which it is made is non-academic, and not peer-reviewed. The short answer is that this should be treated like a non-academic source, as the peer-review process trumps the university affiliation. The longer answer, however, is that some sources can be considered more trustworthy than others, and in the hierarchy of trustworthiness, academics tend to be pretty high up. Use your own judgment, though. There are some academics that bullshit their way through the world wide web. You might have heard of Jordan Peterson.

Using such claims or hypothesis from non-academic sources is not very common, as usually academic sources provide us with plenty of such claims and hypothesis. Indeed, their use case tends to be on topics that have not been extensively researched (yet). An example here could be a claim about the impact of some new technology or social media platform, or the effect that a certain new policy has had. The way these hypotheses are then used in an academic essay or research paper is usually to examine whether these claims are true or not, which indeed is what a hypothesis is, a claim to be tested. The same goes for hypotheses that you probably already know you will disagree with, such as a politician’s claim that ‘people are fed up of experts’ or that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’ (sounds like a 1930s Nazi slogan, but was actually Theresa May). These can be used as a linchpin in your essay, where you use this claim in your introduction, and the essay then goes on to show, using evidence and critical reasoning, how this is not the case.

How to reference non-academic sources

In all the above cases, it is important to make explicit in the text of your essay that these are indeed non-academic sources. This could be something like ‘As Monbiot claims in the Guardian’ or ‘The way this is framed in some right-wing media’ or ‘Giddens further discusses this in a blog article’. Explicitly signpost this, as these sources should not appear like the standard academic standard sources (no typo). A less benevolent reader/marker of your essay might otherwise suspect you of trying to sneak non-academic sources into the discussion, and of suggesting rigour when there isn’t.

Final thoughts

I hope this blog post clears up some of the vagaries and confusions regarding the use of non-academic sources in academic essay writing. Are there any examples or usage cases that I have overlooked, though? What is your strategy in using them? What has worked for you, and when has if backfired? Let me know in the comments below.

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