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Scholarly versus Non-scholarly Sources

If scholarly or non-scholarly sources are used in a paper, the sources can greatly affect the quality of the paper. Most of us have heard that scholarly sources should be used in our research papers. But how do we know if a source is scholarly or not? This handout will help us answer that question so we can easily distinguish between scholarly and non- scholarly sources.

Let’s first look at the different kinds of periodicals. Here are the five general types that can help categorize periodicals, ordered from the most scholarly to the least scholarly.

  1. Academic Journals
    Ex.: JAMA, Journal of Education, Journal of Business Strategies
  2. Trade Publications
    Ex.: Publishers Weekly, Information Today, Advertising Age
  3. General Interest Publications
    Ex.: Economist, National Geographic, Scientific American
  4. Popular Publications
    Ex.: People, Reader’s Digest, Time
  5. Sensational Publications
    Ex.: National Enquirer, Star, Globe

Academic journals are characterized by their limitations to academic disciplines or sub- disciplines. They are intended to present original research or analysis. Their appearance is simple with graphics rarely used, and, if graphics are used, they support a point made in the article. The articles often use technical language and are generally lengthy, with all the sources cited. The topics are commonly specialized for the field and written by scholars or researchers in the field. The audiences are usually other scholars and researchers in the chosen discipline, people with knowledge of the subject.

Trade publications, also known as professional journals, focus on applications, i.e., practice instead of theory. These publications are intended to inform professionals of new developments in an industry or profession, using fewer graphics than popular publications. Trade publications often discuss the practical application(s) of theory. Like popular publications, citations of sources are rarely given; there may, however, be a short reference list. These articles are commonly long and use jargon. The content is both specific and deep. While these publications are usually not considered scholarly, they seem to be in a gray area. They seem to be somewhere between scholarly and non-scholarly. The audience is usually practitioners in the field.

General interest publications are intended to provide general information to a broad audience and, like popular publications, have an attractive appearance and many graphics. The articles are commonly short, and sometimes the sources are cited. But most often, they contain no citations. The authors assume a certain level of intelligence and interest from the reader, but not special knowledge.

Popular publications are mainly intended to entertain the reader and usually endorse a viewpoint. Often, these publications have an attractive appearance and many graphics, such as photographs. The authors of these publications rarely cite their sources and often offer no citations. The articles are usually short and use simple language. Also, the content of the articles requires no specialized knowledge.

Sensational publications are intended to entertain and stir curiosity. These publications also have many photographs with citations rarely, if ever, given. The articles are short and use simple language, and the authors of these articles assume a certain level of gullibility and superstition from their readers.

Where do Internet sources fit? Internet sources fall into any of the above five types depending on the author’s authority, publication’s credibility, etc. For further information on evaluating Internet sources, you might look at our handout “Find and Evaluate Internet Sources.”

Now that we understand the differences between the five types of periodicals, we can now look at the characteristics of scholarly and non-scholarly sources. These characteristics can serve as a general guideline to help us determine if a source is scholarly or not.

Scholarly sources are intended to share original research or analyses of previous research. The sources are commonly heavily theoretical focusing on presenting theory or proving it out. These sources are written by scholars or researchers for other scholars or researchers. The appearance of these sources is usually serious, with few, if any, graphics. The articles are often lengthy and may include the specific language of the discipline. Additionally, sources in these articles are cited. These sources are typically academic journals and, in some fields, trade, or professional journals.

A Bright Idea: The databases accessed through the UHV Library allow the user to restrict search results to peer-reviewed, refereed, or scholarly articles. To see the search options of a particular database, you might look at the help option of the database or contact Ask-a-Librarian.

Non-scholarly sources are intended to do several things: to provide general information, to entertain, to sell products, or to promote a viewpoint. These articles are commonly written by journalists, freelance writers or staff members and can be anonymous. These articles are written for a general audience with limited knowledge of the subject. The articles are also usually attractive in appearance and heavily illustrated. Also, characteristic—non-scholarly sources rarely cite sources used in the articles. They are often called magazines.

Please see the table on the next page that compares the characteristics of scholarly and non-scholarly sources. This table is a very useful tool for determining quickly if a source is scholarly or not.

Table 1: Characteristics of Scholarly and Non-Scholarly Sources


Scholarly Sources

Non-Scholarly Sources


To share original research/experiments or evaluate previous research in some meaningful way (to show connections with previous research, to reveal gaps, etc.)

To provide general information, to entertain, to sell products or to promote viewpoint(s). May discuss application of theoretical knowledge (trade or professional journals).


Scholars, researchers (e.g., scientists), professors.

Journalists, freelance writers, staff members, pundits. Could be anonymous.

Intended Audience

Academic or research communities, most likely with some scholarly background.

General audience or

for audiences who have little information about a subject.


University presses, scholarly presses, research organizations, professional organizations or associations.

Commercial publishers, interest groups, trade associations,

Acceptance Procedure

Undergo review by content experts prior to publishing (peer-reviewed). Usually published quarterly or


Undergo editing by staff editors. Acceptance often based on popular appeal of topic. Usually published monthly, bi-monthly, weekly, or daily.


Sober, serious look. Often include abstracts. May include graphs and charts. Few, if any, glossy photographs.

Usually attractive and heavily illustrated with glossy photographs. Often contains advertisements.

Length and Content

Often lengthy. May include headings like methodology, literature review, further study.

Usually short. Reports on events or opinions. May include anecdotes.

Language and Style

Language of the field (jargon, technical terms, etc).

Most often non-technical. Often written in a simple language. Technical terms used are usually defined.


Footnotes, end notes, bibliographies, reference or works cited pages. Most often includes citations in-text and reference page(s).

Rarely cite sources. Trade or professional journals may have short reference lists.


JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, Journal of Behavioral Education, Technical Communication, Early Childhood Education Journal, Business Quarterly.

New York Times, National Geographic, Time, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, Harvard Business Review.

Table 1 Created 2005 by Summer Leibensperger.

Copyright 2006 by the 'Academic Center', the University of Houston-Victoria, and David Felts. Created 2006 by David Felts.