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Distinguishing Scholarly Journals from Other Periodicals

7 February 2011

Distinguishing Scholarly Journals from Other Periodicals

Journals, magazines, and newspapers are important sources for up-to-date information in all disciplines.  In this guide we have divided the criteria for evaluating periodical literature into five categories:

  • Scholarly
  • Substantive News/General
  • Popular
  • Sensational
  • Trade


Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines

Scholarly as:

  • concerned with academic study, especially research,
  • exhibiting the methods and attitudes of a scholar, and
  • having the manner and appearance of a scholar.

Substantive as having a solid base, being substantial.

Popular means fit for, or reflecting the taste and intelligence of, the people at large.

Sensational as arousing or intending to arouse strong curiosity, interest or reaction.

Trade as geared to people who work in a specific business (or trade).

Keeping these definitions in mind, and realizing that none of the lines drawn between types of journals can ever be totally clear cut, the general criteria are as follows.


Scholarly journals are also called academic, peer-reviewed, or refereed journals. (Strictly speaking, peer-reviewed (also called refereed) journals refer only to those journals that submit articles to several other scholars, experts, or academics (peers) in the field for review and comment. These reviewers must agree that the article represents properly conducted original research or writing before it can be published.)

What to look for:

  • Scholarly journal articles often have an abstract, a descriptive summary of the article contents, before the main text of the article.
  • Scholarly journals generally have a sober, serious look. They often contain many graphs and charts but few glossy pages or exciting pictures.
  • Scholarly journals always cite their sources in the form of footnotes or bibliographies. These bibliographies are generally lengthy and cite other scholarly writings.
  • Articles are written by a scholar in the field or by someone who has done research in the field. The affiliations of the authors are listed, usually at the bottom of the first page or at the end of the article–universities, research institutions, think tanks, and the like.
  • The language of scholarly journals is that of the discipline covered. It assumes some technical background on the part of the reader.
  • The main purpose of a scholarly journal is to report on original research or experimentation in order to make such information available to the rest of the scholarly world.
  • Many scholarly journals, though by no means all, are published by a specific professional organization.


  • American Economic Review
  • Applied Geography
  • Archives of Sexual Behavior
  • Journal of Comparative Family Studies
  • Journal of Theoretical Biology
  • Modern Fiction Studies


These periodicals may be quite attractive in appearance, although some are in newspaper format. Articles are often heavily illustrated, generally with photographs.

What to look for:

  • News and general interest periodicals sometimes cite sources, though more often do not.
  • Articles may be written by a member of the editorial staff, a scholar or a free lance writer.
  • The language of these publications is geared to any educated audience. There is no specialty assumed, only interest and a certain level of intelligence.
  • They are generally published by commercial enterprises although some come from specific professional organizations.
  • The main purpose of periodicals in this category is to provide information, in a general manner, to a broad audience of concerned citizens.


  • The Economist
  • National Geographic
  • The New York Times
  • The New Yorker
  • Scientific American
  • Vital Speeches of the Day


 Popular periodicals come in many formats, although often slick and attractive in appearance with lots of color graphics (photographs, drawings, etc.).

What to look for:

  • These publications do not cite sources in a bibliography. Information published in popular periodicals is often second or third hand and the original source is rarely mentioned.
  • Articles are usually very short and written in simple language.
  • The main purpose of popular periodicals is to entertain the reader, to sell products (their own or their advertisers), or to promote a viewpoint


  • Ebony
  • Newsweek
  • People Weekly
  • Readers Digest
  • Sports Illustrated
  • Time
  • Vogue


Sensational periodicals come in a variety of styles, but often use a newspaper format.

What to look for:

  • Their language is elementary and occasionally inflammatory or sensational. They assume a certain gullibility in their audience.
  • The main purpose of sensational magazines seems to be to arouse curiosity and to cater to popular superstitions. They often do so with flashy headlines designed to astonish (e.g., Half-man Half-woman Makes Self Pregnant).


  • Globe
  • National Examiner
  • Star
  • Weekly World News


A trade publication, unlike a consumer publication, covers a specific industry for people who work in that industry. Such publications cover an industry in more minute details than a consumer publication might.  Trade publications deliver information that’s of value to those who work in a certain field, but might not be of as much interest to the general public.


  • American Libraries Magazine
  • Hardwood Floors Magazine
  • Information Today
  • Variety.


There is no comprehensive source for identifying all peer-reviewed journals. To help determine if a particular journal is peer-reviewed, refer to the journal itself (either to an individual issue of the journal or to the publisher’s web site).

However, some online databases to which the Library subscribes have begun to flag the peer-reviewed journals so they can be searched in the database. Following is a list of databases offering peer-reviewed journal searching:

EBSCO DATABASES:  You can limit your search to peer reviewed journals when beginning your search by clicking on “Search Options” and selecting “Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals” or while running your search by selecting “Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals” on left hand side of the screen under “Refine your results

ETHNIC NEWSWATCH: You can limit your search to peer reviewed journals when beginning your search by clicking “Scholarly journals, including peer-reviewed”when beginning your search or by clicking on the “Scholarly Journals” tab once you have ran your query.

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