6.4 Scholarly Sources

Another major category of information sources is scholarly information produced by subject experts working in academic institutions, research centers and scholarly organizations. Scholars generate information that advances our knowledge and understanding of the world. The research they do creates new opportunities for inventions, practical applications, and new approaches to solving problems or understand issues.

Alan Cann's profile on Google scholar

Alan Cann: CC BY-SA 2.0

Scholars introduce their discoveries to the world in a formal system of information dissemination that has developed over centuries. Because scholarly
research undergoes a process of “peer review” before being published (meaning that other experts review the work and pass judgment about whether it is worthy of publication), you can be assured that the information you find from scholarly sources has met the standards for accuracy, credibility and validity in that field.

Academics, researchers and students at universities make their contributions to scholarly knowledge available in many forms:

  • masters’ theses

  • doctoral dissertations

  • conference papers

  • academic reports

  • scholarly journals

  • books

  • individual scholars’ web pages

  • web pages developed by the scholars’ home institution

All serve the purpose of publishing and distributing the new knowledge gleaned from the research efforts of these scholars.

Journals that publish scholarly contributions are different than the journals that might be published by an institution such as a think tank or by a media organization. Scholarly journals have a board of editors and a panel of peer reviewers who will determine whether the submitted material has sufficient merit to be published.

Materials from scholarly sources are usually found most readily in libraries with large collections of scholarly journals and books. Some scholarly materials can be located in the sponsoring institution’s library. For example, a dissertation written by a University of Texas student would be available at the University of Texas library.

There are now “digital only” scholarly publications which uphold the same rigorous peer review and high academic standards as their printed predecessors. An example is the Journal of Interactive Advertising. Research projects and papers of professors, doctoral students and researchers can be found on university websites. In some cases, institutional sources – such as associations – will make compilations of scholarly papers available, like the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s database of AEJMC conference papers.

The supporting datasets used to analyze the research are rarely available online, but the clever communicator will know that the database must exist and that the scholar will be the source they need to contact to find out about it. Since one of the tenets of scholarly research is replicability, scholars have an interest in making their data available.

Making distinctions between types of disciplines may help you determine the types of scholarly information sources that are most useful for your purposes. The clearest distinction is between the sciences and the humanities. The scientist and the humanist use different sorts of research methods and study different phenomena. They publish their findings in forms that are characteristic of their disciplines and make these documents available through a variety of tools.

Scientists seek experimental validity by studying the natural world and examining the regularities or irregularities that seem to govern natural phenomena. Their methods must be open to scrutiny and, in the best of circumstances, must be reproducible by others following the same procedures. Experimental validity, rather than individual interpretation of events or phenomena, is paramount. Immediacy in sharing results is very important for professionals in the scientific fields, so scientists rely on the research report and journal article.

The humanist’s method is shaped for interpretive validity; that is, the humanist tries to interpret a poem, a painting, a novel or a musical score by presenting an interpretation that will be considered valid. Humanists study the products of human imagination and combine a personal, unique perspective with the framework of accepted concepts and knowledge that their discipline provides. Humanists rely on books as the primary method of expressing their knowledge of a field because the book allows the in-depth exploration of context that characterizes humanistic investigation.

Social and policy scientists rely on a combination of experimental and interpretive methods. They have adopted the scientific method for much of their work and exhibit the same concern for openness and validity exhibited by scientists. However, because the subject of much of their study is human social activity, social scientists work interpretively as well. For the most part, they are concerned with the present and with the implications of their work in social organizations and in public decision making. Social and policy scientists publish their findings in a number of forms. Journals are important, but research reviews, yearbooks and handbooks are also valuable.

While it is easy to understand why it is important for scholars to share their work among themselves, why would scholars want to share their information with you as a communications professional? For one thing, scholars are as eager as anyone else to have their work recognized and appreciated. Taking a call from a reporter or public relations specialist seeking the most reliable “expert” on a particular subject is an ego-boost for the scholar who is used to toiling in relative anonymity in the quiet of the academic or research center environment.

Another motivation for scholars to talk to you is that they might be conducting their work with the help of a grant or financial backing from a foundation or research organization that would appreciate wider distribution of the findings and a larger public audience for the organization’s work.

In fact, it is your job as a communications professional to ask scholars who is supporting their work financially. It is not unusual for scholars to have grants from large companies (pharmaceutical companies, for instance) or government agencies (the U.S. Defense Department, for instance), and the work they do may reflect the interests or priorities of the funding source.

Scholars typically must reveal their funding sources in manuscripts they submit to journals for peer review so the experts reviewing the work know who “paid the piper” and who may be “calling the tune.” This is not to disparage the independence of scholars who work with grant funding but rather to alert you, the information seeker, to ask for full disclosure about the nature of the funding of the scholarly work you intend to use in your research. Bias comes in many different forms and even if a funding source is a reputable governmental organization such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), you should acknowledge that the agenda and interests of this organization are important for understanding the perspective of that research.

Much of the work you do as a communications professional requires you to range across many disciplines of knowledge and skim across many fields of expertise. That usually means that you will not, as the media professional, become an “expert” in any one subject area.

You must rely on scholars to help you accurately interpret information for your audience. You seek the help of scholarly sources to identify emerging social or scientific trends, to decipher specialist information or jargon that you cannot understand, to comment on the work of other scholars, to critique institutional policies or procedures, and for a wide variety of other purposes. The main use of scholarly sources in mass communication messages is as a source of expertise and knowledge about audiences, subject matter, or effects of messages.

As you move through the information strategy process, you will begin to identify the individual scholars and/or the scholarly publications or resources that are most appropriate for your message task. For instance, if you are working on the advertising account for a new type of low-fat snack food, your initial discussions about the product with the client may direct you to several researchers whose work documents the dietary effects of the new food.

If you are writing a news story about the possible effects of a new government–imposed tariff on imported steel, you are likely to want to discuss the policy with economics scholars who study trade policy whose names you find in the transcripts of testimony before Congress about the policy.

If you are preparing the news release about the introduction of curtain airbags in next year’s models, your supervisor may ask you to seek the expertise of a scholar studying the effects of the new devices on the injury rate in auto accidents.

In every case, the scholarly source is intended to provide credibility, depth, balance and/or expertise to your message. Rather than asking your audience to trust that you, the communicator, just happened to get it right, you seek the help of scholarly sources to ensure that audiences are receiving complete, accurate, and fair information in their news stories, advertisements and public relations messages. If you choose your scholarly sources carefully and with attention to their credentials, expertise and relevance for your topic, you are likely to produce a much more reliable and credible message for your audience. We will go into more detail about locating and using scholarly sources in later lessons.