9 Formal vs Informal Sources

Comparing Formal and Informal Sources

Scholarly publications are the result of an on-going scholarly conversation that begins as an informal exchange of information and ideas. The platform and context can influence the tone and writing style of a scholar when sharing ideas.

Informal platforms include:

  • Blogs
  • Podcasts
  • Letters/Email
  • YouTube videos

Informal sources published by individuals or organizations may not provide the creator’s credentials or source references, making it more difficult to establish authority.

Formal platforms include:

  • Peer-reviewed journal articles
  • Books printed by scholarly publishers
  • Conference posters or papers

Formal sources go through a process of critical review and revision before they are published. The credentials of the author or creator are provided along with references and citations. Formal sources are most commonly found in academic library collections.

Scholarly conversations can take place in both formal and informal platforms. Whether formal or informal, scholarly communication is an ongoing and evolving dialogue. (1)


Scenario 1: You are writing a proposal to your campus president to ban smoking on your campus. Your proposal has to be brief, so which two sources of authority might best convince the president to enact the ban? (Select all that apply)

Use your new knowledge to determine the most appropriate authority in each scenario.

President Truman’s executive order on segregation falls within the realm of which of the three models of presidential power.

  1. The latest episode of Dr. Oz where he discusses the dangers of secondhand smoke.Incorrect! Information from a celebrity doctor is unlikely to be judged a credible authority.
  2. A secondhand smoke article written by a journalist for People Magazine .Incorrect! Information from a magazine journalist is unlikely to be judged a credible authority.
  3. A peer-reviewed article from a medical journal written by a cardiologist.Correct! Information from a scholarly peer-reviewed article is a credible authority.
  4. Testimony from fellow students about their experiences with secondhand smoke on your campus.Correct! Your campus president is probably going to be highly aware of the needs of the students on campus and would want to take into account the experiences of the students.
  5. A secondhand smoke article from WebMD.com.Incorrect! Information from a commercial website is unlikely to be judged a credible authority.

Scenario 2: You find an article online for a lung cancer research paper you are working on, but you’ve never heard of the author and are unsure if the medical community supports the unorthodox treatment they are recommending. Which of the following questions regarding the authority of a source should you ask when determining if it is credible? (Select all that apply)Where is it from?

  1. HamiltonianCorrect! The publisher or origin of the article can sometimes indicate how credible the authority is.
  2. How was it created?Correct! Learning who created the source and the process used to create it can help you to determine credibility.
  3. What type of humor does it contain?Incorrect! The type of humor used by an authority could potentially be important but not in this context.
  4. What is the purpose of the information?Correct! Understanding the purpose of a source will help you determine the credibility of the author in that context.
  5. Which sources does the author cite and do others cite this article?Correct! Citation trails are important clues to determining the credibility of the authority of a source.

Scenario 3: You are writing a research paper on the effects of secondhand smoke on the elderly. Select the most appropriate source and authority for your investigation.

  1. Article written in 1990 by a renowned cardiologist. The article includes a few references to previous studies, but it focuses mainly on the methods and data of a wide-scale study performed by the author that included some elderly subjects.Incorrect! This article is almost 30 years old and new breakthroughs could have happened since then. The author is a cardiologist, but the study was broad and did not directly focus on the elderly.
  2. Article written in 2014 by a pediatrician, published in a highly respected pediatric journal, and contains citations to several other similar studies.Incorrect! Though published in a respected journal, the author is a pediatrician not a cardiologist, and the study did not focus on the elderly, which is the focus of your research paper.
  3. Article written in 2005 by an elderly smoker whose non-smoking husband died of lung cancer. The article was published in The New York Times.Incorrect! This is a somewhat older article, written by someone without a medical background and published in a newspaper. Though personal experience is valuable in many contexts, your article focuses on the physical effects of smoking.
  4. Article written in 2010 by a cardiologist studying a small retirement community. The article includes references to other similar studies and was published in a respected journal.This article was written recently by a cardiologist, was published in a respected journal, and focuses on the community you are studying.

Scenario 4: For general information about the health risks of smoking, which sources would be credible for your personal research? (Select all that apply)

  1. Health and beauty magazine article.Incorrect! Health and beauty magazines are not rigorously fact-checked and often give out bad or incorrect health advice.
  2. Tweet from U.S. Surgeon General’s (@Surgeon_General) Twitter account.Correct! The U.S. Surgeon General is a highly respected authority on health matters, and even their Twitter account will be fact-checked.
  3. Article from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( www.cdc.gov ).Correct! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a U.S. Government Agency (.gov) that works to study, track, and fight disease. Their information is very credible and written for a non-scientific audience. It is a great place to go for personal health information.
  4. Statistics and other information from the website: www.marlborocigarettes.us .Incorrect! Because they are trying to sell you a product, Marlboro does not have your best health interests in mind, and their website might contain biased information on smoking, or it might obscure important health information on the effects of smoking. (8)


Because authority is contextual, you have to dig deeper to know whether a source is authoritative for your investigation. Since authority is constructed differently in various communities, you can use criteria to evaluate authority and determine the best sources for your purpose. Using the first credible-looking source you find on the Internet may be tempting, but now you know you don’t have to rely on the first source you find. (8)

Authority is Constructed & Contextual

Ask questions about the author(s), the purpose, and the context of the information. Recognize the value of diverse ideas and world views.

  • What points of view might be missing?
  • How do you determine the credibility of a source?

Think critically about information—whether it’s from a blog post, a book, or a peer-reviewed journal article.

  • Whose voice does the information represent?
  • What makes a source authoritative?

Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required. (7)


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