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HIST 203 - Canada Since 1867

Audience: For whom your secondary sources were written

A “secondary source” is an analysis written after the fact for an audience removed from the events.  Historians usually divide this secondary material into “scholarly” and “popular” treatments.

The terms scholarly and popular do not necessarily judge the quality of the work or its accuracy.  Rather they are judgments about the work’s stated content, intended audience and its presentation.  The same criteria apply to a book, an article, or a website. 

 

Scholarly

Popular

  • Written for professional historians.
  • Written for the non-professional reader (n.b. not uneducated).
  • Written within the context of collective professional research and debate.
  • Context more likely to be current social or political issues.
  • High level of methodological self-consciousness and documentation.
  • Methodology and documentation are not foregrounded.
  • Advances or revises knowledge.
  • Synthesizes and explains.

 

A scholarly work is a scientific experiment very much like any other experiment.  Like a good experiment, it should be possible for another scholar to independently repeat the experiment and see whether the same conclusions are reached.  The scholarly work should contain all the elements necessary to repeat the experiment, including raw materials (sources), procedure (methodology), design of experiment (argument), and results (conclusions).

A scholarly book will usually begin with the state of the question and lay out the history of the subject and discuss the various schools of opinion and controversies.  A scholarly article will usually concentrate on one small aspect of a question or interpretation of a source, and will not survey the entire question.  All scholarly works will have footnotes or references that document the sources the author has used to support the work’s argument.  A scholarly work will have clearly reasoned step-by-step argumentation that will logically lead from the premises to the conclusions. 

A scholarly book or article will go through a “peer-review process” where several referees – acknowledged experts in the subject – will look at the work before it is published. The referee’s role is to determine that the sources used are of high quality (and nothing has been overlooked), the methodology is sound and the argumentation is rational.  There is no guarantee that the referees will agree with the conclusions; the intention is not to stifle new interpretations, just to ensure quality of content.

A scholarly book is not necessarily published by a university press, although many are.  Not all books published by university presses are scholarly ones.  There are commercial publishers that specialize in scholarly works, too.  Scholarly journal articles are also refereed by scholars in the field. 

 

How can you tell if a printed secondary work is scholarly or popular? 

  • Remember the criteria outlined above and look for the following points: 
  • Who is the author?  Are his or her credentials stated and are they appropriate?
  • Are statements backed up with documentation? 
  • Are the sources credited and can the reader reassemble the material to make an independent assessment of them?
  • Is the methodology logical and clear?  Does the conclusion follow on the premises?

 

Evaluating electronic resources

Check out this site from the Cornell University Library.

 

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