When you are writing an essay the focus will be on finding scholarly material. Which sources are considered to be scholarly differs somewhat between different subjects, but under the headings below you will find some general points you can look for.
Referring to other sources is the foundation of academic writing, and therefore all academic sources contain a reference list. If there is no reference list in the source you’ve found then it is not scholarly. But on the other hand it’s not certain that the source you’ve found is scholarly just because it has a reference list.
When your teachers talk about academic literature they often mean that your sources have to be reviewed by independent experts in the field. This is called peer review, and applies above all to scholarly articles. In some databases you can choose to search for articles only from journals that use peer review. Here you can see an example of what it can look like:
If this possibility doesn’t exist you can use the ULRICHSWEB search service to check whether a journal makes use of peer review. Search for the journal you want to check, and then look to see whether there is a heading called “Refereed”, as in the example below:
Academically reviewed journals may also contain other types of articles (debates, critiques and so on). These types of articles do not get academically reviewed, so do check as well that the article has a (reasonably long) reference list.
Another type of academic literature is doctoral theses. Doctoral theses are also peer-reviewed, though in another way than scholarly articles. If your teacher has asked you to find scholarly articles they will often accept doctoral theses as well (assuming you’ve got the time to read them!). In a number of databases you can choose to limit your search to doctoral theses only. This is what it can look like in different databases:
Sometimes books are also peer-reviewed before they are published. This seldom occurs for books written in Swedish, so it primarily applies to foreign books. Unfortunately there is no easy way to see whether a book has been peer-reviewed. For books consisting of chapters written by different authors there is always an editor who reviews the contents of the book, but this review is not regarded as a peer review.
To determine whether a particular article is scholarly, you can also look at how it is structured. It usually follows a structure called IMRAD. It looks roughly like a student essay:
Introduction: Presentation of the purpose of the study and previous research within the subject.
Method: Description of how the study has been conducted.
Results: Presentation of what findings the researchers have arrived at.
Discussion: Discussion of how the findings of the study are to be interpreted.
The headings do not need to have exactly the same wording as above, but these parts are nevertheless often included in some form. However, this applies only if the study is empirical, that is to say that the researchers have collected their own material through for example interviews, questionnaires, experiments or similar. More theoretical articles have more often a freer structure.