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Instruction: Scholarly vs. Popular Periodicals

Scholarly vs. Popular Periodicals

  • Periodicals cover many subjects.
  • Many are written for a general audience whose readers are not expected to have specialized knowledge or training. We usually call these periodicals magazines.
  • However, probably even more periodicals are written for specialists and have articles that cannot be readily understood by readers who lack that background. These periodicals written for a scholarly audience are called scholarly journals.
  • Being able to identify different types of periodicals can help you determine their usefulness for your projects (especially if you're required to use "scholarly" or "peer-reviewed" articles for a paper).

Scholarly Journals

The purpose of scholarly journals is to inform other scholars of research findings. Some knowledge of the subject terminology is required.
  • Authors are experts (professors, researchers, or scholars) in their field.
  • Content tends to be highly specialized and includes research projects, methodology and theory. See Anatomy of a Scholarly Article [NCSU Libraries]
  • Appearance is sometimes sober and serious, compared to popular magazines. For print journals, the tone may be set by a plain cover on plain paper and simple black and white graphics and illustrations.
  • Advertising is minimal or nonexistent.
  • Language will include terms specific to the field. Assumes some scholarly knowledge by the reader.
  • Sources are always cited.
  • Publishers include research organizations and universities.
  • Pagination tends to be consecutive within one volume, which may contain several separate issues.
  • ExamplesAmerican Economic ReviewArchives of Sexual BehaviorJAMA: The Journal of the American Medical AssociationPlasma Physics, Annals of Glaciology, and Modern Fiction Studies.
  • Access Tools are specialized/disciplinary databases: JSTOR, Art Full Text, MLA Bibliography, PsycINFO, Project Muse, Web of Science, etc. OR in some cases more general databases, such as Academic Search Premier.

Peer reviewed and refereed journals

Most scholarly journals are peer reviewed or refereed. This refers to a process in which submitted articles undergo rigorous evaluation by a group of academics or researchers whose knowledge and credentials are similar to those of the author, hence the author's 'peers'.

The reviewers send their recommendations on to the journal's editors. Articles ultimately approved for publication have gone through this refereed process and when published, further the knowledge in a given discipline.

Some article databases, such as Academic Search Premier, allow you to limit your search to peer-reviewed or scholarly publications, excluding the popular material. If you need to use scholarly resources for your research paper, checking this box will help limit the results to journal titles that are considered scholarly. Here is a great video that will help you better understand the peer review process:

Peer Review in Three Minutes [NCSU Libraries]

Trade and Professional Journals

Trade journals examine news, trends, and issues for a specific business, industry or organization.

  • Authors can be professionals in the field or journalists working for the publisher.
  • Content includes industry tends, new products or techniques, and organizational news.
  • Appearance is often marked by a glossy cover, color pictures and illustrations, a cover depicting an industrial setting.
  • Advertisements tend to be related to the specific industry or trade.
  • Language will include terms specific to the field.
  • Sources may be cited.
  • Publishers include trade organizations and commercial publishers.
  • Pagination starts at one with each issue.
  • ExamplesNursingAdvertising AgeChronicles of Higher EducationScience Teacher, and Automotive News.
  • Access Tools are business indexes: ABI-Inform Trade & Industry, Business Source Elite, etc.; often same indexes used for scholarly journals such as ERIC

Commentary and Opinion Journals

Commentary and Opinion Journals examine social or political issues.

  • Authors can be academics, journalists or organization representatives.
  • Content may include liberal or conservative viewpoints, and may contain speeches, interviews, or reviews.
  • Appearance varies widely; some appear plain, other are very glossy.
  • Advertising is moderate.
  • Language is written for general educated audience.
  • Sources are sometimes cited and may be included within the text.
  • Publishers are commercial publishers or non-profit organizations.
  • Pagination starts with one with each issue.
  • ExamplesNational ReviewNew Republic, and Progressive.
  • Access Tools: PAIS and Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature.


The main purpose is to provide information to a broad audience. No prior subject knowledge is necessary.

  • Authors are usually free lance writers or journalist, but can be scholars.
  • Content can be news or human interest, either narrowly or broadly covered.
  • Appearance can be slick and attractive, although some are in newspaper format. Articles are often heavily illustrated, generally with color photographs.
  • Advertising can be moderate or heavy, and includes unrelated products.
  • Language is geared toward an educated audience.
  • Sources are sometimes cited, but not always.
  • Publishers are usually commercial enterprises or individuals; although some emanate from specific professional organizations.
  • Examples:  The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and the Fairbanks Daily News Miner.
  • Access Tools: ABI/Inform-ProQuest Newspapers, Newspaper Abstracts and Newspaper Source.

Popular Magazines

These magazines are designed to entertain, sell products, give practical information, and/or to promote a viewpoint.

  • Authors are journalists, not experts. Articles may be unsigned or generated from corporate press releases.
  • Content includes popular personalities, news, and general interest articles.
  • Appearance is marked by glossy covers and lots of color illustrations and photographs. Articles are generally short.
  • Advertising is heavy.
  • Language is simple and designed to meet a minimal education level.
  • Sources may be second or third hand, and the original source is sometimes obscure.
  • Publishers are commercial enterprises.
  • ExamplesTimePeople WeeklyReaders DigestSports Illustrated, and Vogue.
  • Access Tools: Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, Periodical Abstracts.

Not sure which category your periodical is in?

Ulrich's International Periodicals Directory (Z6941 U5 READY REF) and Ulrichsweb provide a complete listing of magazines, journals and newspapers and comprehensive information about each publication, including "Document type."

Ask a Librarian for assistance if you cannot determine how scholarly a publication is, or if you need more information about a publication.

How to find periodicals?

A good place to start is the list of databases found under the Rasmuson Library's Research Guides page.

From this page, select a subject that is related to your topic and then look at the databases under the Best Bets for Finding Articles section.

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