How do I tell the difference between scholarly, trade, and popular articles or books?

Often times, faculty may tell you to limit your research to "scholarly" sources, but what does that mean? This guide may help you in making the distinction between popular sources, trade/professional sources, and scholarly/academic sources. This distinction is most obvious in periodicals (magazines and journals), but may also apply to books, web sites, and other information sources.

Note: there is often a grey area between these categories, so exercise your judgment and critical thinking in evaluating your information sources.

A popular magazine or newspaper usually fits these criteria:

  • Articles are usually written by a journalist.
  • Articles are written to be understandable to a wide audience. The author writes in simple language and assumes that the reader may not know much about the topic.
  • The purpose of the article is to entertain, to report news, or to summarize information.
  • Articles rarely include a bibliography, but sources may be mentioned by name within the article. (for example, "John Doe commented that...")
  • Magazines and newspapers are usually published by a commercial publisher.
  • Magazines are usually published weekly or monthly; newspapers are usually published daily or weekly.
  • Magazines and newspapers usually have many advertisements and photographs.

A professional or trade publication usually fits these criteria:

  • Articles are written by members of the profession or trade, or by specialized journalists or technical writers.
  • Articles are written for other members of the profession or trade. Language may include jargon and terms that are commonly used in the profession/trade. The author will assume that the reader has a certain level of knowledge about the field.
  • The purpose of the article is to inform those working in the field/profession of events, techniques, and other professional issues.
  • Articles may occasionally include a bibliography.
  • Trade publications are often published by the professional/trade associations for the field.

A scholarly or academic journal usually fits these criteria:

  • Articles are written by researchers and subject experts.
  • Most articles are approved for publication by the process of peer review, whereby the author submits the article to the journal and the article is reviewed by other subject experts to verify that its methodology is sound and that its conclusions are valid. This process helps to ensure a high level of quality and academic rigor in the articles that are published.
  • Articles are written for other members of the academic discipline: researchers, professors, and students. Language will include jargon, terms, and/or statistical figures that are commonly used in the discipline. The author will assume that the reader has a certain level of knowledge about the field and the topic at hand.
  • The purpose of the article is to report research and scholarly ideas and to add to the body of scholarly knowedge about the subject.
  • Articles will include a bibliography, and in some disciplines (especially physical sciences and social sciences), will follow a strict structure that includes an abstract, research methodology, data, and a discussion of the results and implications of the research.
  • Academic journals are usually published by university presses or professional organizations.
  • Academic journals are usually published monthly or quarterly (four times a year), but may be published at other intervals (weekly, bimonthly, yearly, etc.)

To learn more about the relationship between these different types of information, you may view the Information Cycle, a short tutorial produced by Penn State Libraries about how a news item is interpreted and analyzed in different types of sources. To see examples of scholarly and popular periodicals, visit ResearchPath.

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