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Using Scholarly Sources: Scholarly or Popular?

What is scholarship?

"For an activity to be designated as scholarship, it should manifest at least three key characteristics: it should be public, susceptible to critical review and evaluation,and accessible for exchange and use by other members of one's scholarly community.

We thus observe with respect to all forms of scholarship that they are acts of mind or spirit that have been made public in some manner, have been subjected to peer review by members of one's intellectual orprofessional community, and can be cited, refuted, built-upon, and shared among members of that community. Scholarship properly communicated and critiqued serves as the building block for knowledge growth in a field."*

This guide includes information on how to distinguish scholarly from popular sources, and help with reading scholarly sources.

Characteristics of Scholarly Sources

  • Scholarly journals and books usually cite their sources in the form of footnotes or bibliographies.
  • Articles are written by a scholar or expert in the field.
  • The language of scholarly sources is typically that of the discipline covered.
  • Scholarly sources usually assume that the reader has some prior knowledge of the topic or problem.
  • 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.
  • Many scholarly journals are "peer reviewed" or "refereed". To be accepted for publication in a given journal the author of an article must submit his or her article to be reviewed, usually anonymously, by a panel of experts in the field

Examples of Scholarly Journals:

  • American Economic Review
  • Communication Education
  • Journal of Marriage and the Family (published by the National Council on Family Relations)
  • Modern Fiction Studies
  • Ecology

Substantive News or General Interest Periodicals

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 or individuals, although some emanate from specific professional organizations. The main purpose of periodicals in this category is to provide information and/or analysis, in a general manner, to a broad audience of concerned citizens.

Examples of substantive news or general interest periodicals:

  • Economist
  • Chronicle of Higher Education
  • New York Times
  • Scientific American
  • The Nation

Popular Periodicals

These publications rarely, if ever, cite sources. Information published in such journals is often second or third hand and the original source is sometimes obscure.

Articles are usually very short, written in simple language and are designed to meet a minimal education level. There is generally little depth to the content of these articles.

The main purpose of popular periodicals is usually to inform and/or entertain the reader.

Examples of popular periodicals:

  • Newsweek
  • U.S. News & World Report
  • Time
  • People
  • USA Today

Research & Instruction Librarian

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Dani Rowland
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About this page

*Initial quotation is from - Shulman, Lee. The Carnegie Teaching Academy. (1998). The Pew Scholars National Fellowship Program (pp 9-10). Menlo Park, CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

This research guide is adapted from: Distinguishing Scholarly from Non-Scholarly Periodicals – A Checklist of Criteria. Cornell University Library.