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Understanding Periodicals: 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 VC/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.