A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away, you may have been asked by a teacher to research a topic and then write a paper. Not only that, you may have also noticed that they want you to use scholarly (or peer-reviewed or academic) sources. So that begs the question … What is a scholarly resource and how do you know if you are looking at one? To answer that question, let’s look at some examples of the differences between scholarly sources and popular sources through the example of Star Wars (for more information on scholarly sources checkout my previous entry 5 Ways to Tell If an article Is Scholarly (or Peer-reviewed … or Academic or this informative video from Vanderbilt University).
In the early 1970s, up-and-coming film director George Lucas, fresh off the success of American Graffiti, got 20th Century Fox, to bankroll his epic space opera, Star Wars. By the end of that summer, Star Wars, had become a American staple, accumulating over 100 million in movie ticket revenue, and imprinting itself on a generation of movie goers. Before you knew it, kids and adults alike were quoting Mark Hamill’s lament for going to the Tosche station, debating who shot first; Greedo or Han, and trying to their very best Darth Vader impression. Since that time five more movies have come out, and we’ve seen the rise and fall of a galactic empire, the birth of a new Jedi, and the redemption of a smuggler. We’ve also found books, magazines, newspapers and journals publishing papers, essays, interviews, and reviews that discussed and dissected the holy trilogy not only immediately after in came out, but even up to this very day. So, if you were to sit down right now and right a paper on Star Wars that required scholarly sources, what would you use? That is the question we are hoping to answer in this post.
Popular versus Scholarly: The Panel Strikes Back
Before we get into a breakdown of which sources are scholarly and which are popular, it is good to take a second and understand the differences between the two. You are probably at this time most familiar with popular sources (even if you may not know that they are referred to in this way). These are the papers and articles that you find published in newspapers and magazines or online at blogs and on websites. Popular sources are articles that are written to be consumed for large audiences, and in this way tend to be devoid of specialized language, are usually modest in length (1-5 pages), and feature photos or advertisements throughout the article. Some common examples of popular sources are Time, NewsWeek, The Chicago Sun-times, The Wall Street Journal, etc. The authors of these articles are staff writers hired by a publishing company, and the process for publishing requires submitting one’s work to an editor for proof-reading and fact-checking before it goes to press.
Scholarly articles on the other hand are papers that are published in academic journals and are specifically written for scholars, researchers, and students. Thus they contain highly specialized vocabulary, along with the assumption that the reader does not need basic principles spelled out for them. Before being published an academic paper must go through a process known as peer-review, wherein a panel of experts judge the paper on whether it meets the accepted standards of their discipline and prevents the dissemination of irrelevant findings, unwarranted claims, unacceptable interpretations, and personal views.
When you come across a scholarly article you may first notice that the credentials of author are listed in the paper (usually naming the Institute that the person(s) is affiliated with). This is one of the key components of an academic paper because it shows (1) that the author has a job outside of writing these paper (therefore they are not a staff writer like popular source authors) and (2) it establishes the author’s credibility or expertise on the subject being covered.
Another common feature of academic papers is that the author does research before writing the paper and then provides citations to the research they used in the paper (along with a reference list, work cited, or bibliography at the end of the paper), which both provides readers with both a list of the sources that the author has used, and also allows scholars to go back and double check the references that the author has used, to verify their accuracy.
And finally the format of scholarly articles tend to fairly straight forward, either in one or two columns, without any fancy fonts, pictures, or advertisements, breaking up the writing. If there are graphics in an academic paper, they are usually charts, tables or graphs.
Examples of Sources in Film Study and Criticism: A New Scope
Popular sources tend to come out right as an event is occurring, or in the case of a movie, when it is released into theatres. This article, is an example of a movie review (referred to fancifully as Journalistic Film Criticism) which you find published in magazines and newspapers (*and now online at blogs). Movie reviews are written with the express purpose of informing the audience whether or not they should spend money to go see a movie based on the reviewer’s opinion (you are probably familiar with a popular reviewer, the Chicago Sun-times’ own Roger Ebert). There is little if any original research done when the author writes the article and its length is short (usually clocking in at around 800 words). Just looking at the citation for the article can give you a lot of insight into whether it is popular or scholarly. First, check out the date it was published (May 30, 1977). That is just five days after the movie was released into theatres … not really enough time to get any real research done. Second, note that it was published in Newsweek, a source that we know from common knowledge, is a popular magazine that does not publish academic papers.
In contrast to a movie review that you may find in a magazine or newpaper, academic papers usually take a fair amount after an event to come out. In the case of this paper, it was published a full year after the movie was released and is an example of what is referred to as Academic Film Criticism. Notably, we can see the differences between this paper and the previous one we looked at. Mr. Gordon, in this case, does not work for Literature Film Quarterly, but rather for the Department of English at the University of Flordia and his goal is to focus on the meaning of the movie instead of informing the reader whether or not they should spend money to watch a movie. Through his research and references, Mr. Gordon takes the stance that George Lucas uses the steps outlined in Joseph Campbell’s, A Hero with a Thousand Faces, to create a mythology relevant to modern American culture. Again, just looking at the citation we can see that length of the article (13 pages long), is probably more then average reader wants to consume, just to know if they want to view the movie.
When it comes to covering films, popular sources are a popular medium for a movie to put out press and promotion, through interviews with creators and actors. In this article, for example, Rolling Stone, staff writer Jancee Dunn, interviews actor Ahmed Best about his role as Jar Jar Binks, in the first prequel movie, The Phantom Menace. This article serves to provide insight to reader what it was like making the movie, what the person being interviewed thinks about, and what the expectations are about the movie. And while, articles from these publications do not contain any original research, they are frequently used as research by scholarly articles.
Take this article for example, where author Anne Lancashire, professor of Cinema Studies and Drama at the University of Toronto, makes the argument that the Star Wars trilogy transcended the typical development of a movie plot line, from a story that focuses on a beginning/middle/end to a story that focused on the long-term plan of a serialized movie franchise. To prove her argument, Lancashire, researches interviews given by the director, Irvin Kershner and creator, George Lucas, in popular resources, which demonstrate what their plan was for creating drawn out serialized movie trilogy and how they executed that plan. The author also uses reviews published in popular sources to convey her point.
Telling the difference between an academic and popular resource doesn’t require the ability to use the force (if it did you could just Jedi Mind Trick your teacher into believing all you resources were academic) all it practices looking at the difference between the two. However, there are times that you may not be able to tell which you are looking at. When that time comes, stop by the Library and ask a Librarian, who will be gladly there to assist you.