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Popular vs. Scholarly Sources: Intro

How to differentiate between popular, scholarly, and trade publications


Often your professor will suggest that you use scholarly or peer-reviewed journal articles for your research project. It is not always easy to discern the difference between the three major article types: scholarly, trade, and popular.

Use the chart at right to help you understand these distinctions.  Please consult your professor or a librarian if you are unsure about identifying a particular source in this manner.

Handout Version

For a one-page handout of this guide's content, download this:

Popular vs. Scholarly handout

Scholarly vs. Trade vs. Popular Periodicals

Authors Written by authorities/experts Written by professionals in the field, or freelancers Written by journalists, freelancers, or guest contributors
Editors Editors require that articles be reviewed by peers No peer-review process No peer-review process
Article Length Lengthier articles (5–20+ pages) Short to medium-length articles (1–20 pages) Short articles or columns (1–10 pages)
Publication Frequency Published 2–4 times per year Published weekly or monthly Published daily (newspapers), weekly or monthly
Appearance Plain covers, matte paper, few illustrations & few ads, but many tables, figures, charts, graphs Flashy covers, glossy paper, eye-catching illustrations & ads, some photos, cartoons, sidebars Flashy covers, glossy paper, eye-catching illustrations & ads, photos, cartoons, sidebars, sometimes newspapers
Purpose Inform, report, or make available original research to scholars and researchers Examine problems or concerns in a particular profession or industry for practitioners Entertain or persuade readers with general interest topics, or to sell products; usually not subject-specific
Tone & Language Serious, academic, subject-specific language Educated, subject-specific language Entertaining or news-oriented, simple language
References Sources are cited: bibliography, references, and/or footnotes used Sources are usually not cited Sources are rarely cited: no bibliographies or footnotes
Access • Through subscribing academic libraries
• Indexed only in subject-specific databases such as Criminal Justice Abstracts
• Usually sent to office of subscribing practitioners
• Indexing is scattered, but fullest coverage is through business indexes such as Business Source Premier
• Newsstands or to homes of resident subscribers
• Indexed in general-purpose databases such as Academic Search Premier
Examples: Business: Quarterly Review of Economics & Business
Psychology: Journal of Family Psychology
Criminal Justice: Justice Quarterly
Theology: Catholic Historical Review
Nursing: Critical Care Nursing Quarterly
General Interest: not applicable
Business: Advertising Age
Psychology: APA Review
Criminal Justice: Police Chief
Theology: Clergy Review
Nursing: Nursing Times
General Interest: not applicable
Business: Business Week
Psychology: Parents
Criminal Justice: Corrections Today
Theology: Christianity Today
Nursing: Prevention
General Interest: Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, People, National Enquirer, Good Housekeeping, etc.

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      Not everything published in scholarly journals is appropriate for research use.

      For example, book reviews, editorial pieces, short news items, etc. do not count as "scholarly articles".

      If you are unsure about an article you've found, check with a librarian or your professor.