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Scholarly or Popular? Information Literacy Guide

Learn to distinguish between scholarly / popular information sources

Scholarly Journals & Popular Magazines: Information Literacy Guide

For some assignments, your instructor may require you to locate information in scholarly research journals, but how can you easily know the differences between a scholarly journal and a popular magazine? This sort of basic evaluation is a necessary part of the research process, and a means for you to sharpen your critical thinking skills. Listed below are some of the ways that a scholarly research journal typically differs from a popular magazine.

Scholarly journal articles will indicate authors and their academic credentials; popular magazines may not always list the author.
  • Research articles list authors clearly and prominently and include author credentials (degrees, positions, and so on)
  • Research article authors are often clearly affiliated with academic or research institutions
  • Research articles typically give an address for readers to contact the author at her or his institution or academic department
  • Popular magazine articles are often unsigned, rarely indicate author credentials, and almost never include a specific address for contacting the author

Scholarly journal articles will include footnotes, endnotes, bibliographies, or reference lists; popular magazine articles very rarely do this.
  • Scholarly journal articles indicate sources of information that were used, read, or cited in the article
  • Scholarly journal articles almost always include footnotes or endnotes
  • Popular magazine articles rarely use formal footnotes or reference lists. They may attribute sources in a more indirect or less formal manner, or not at all.

Scholarly journal articles focus on research; popular magazines focus on current events & topics of general interest, and include lots of ads for consumer products.
  • Scholarly articles go beyond "general interest," and typically are written for experts in the field - those who already know quite a bit about the topic and its development
  • The writing style of scholarly articles may be technical and detailed, and use specialized vocabulary familiar to subject experts in that research discipline
  • Scholarly research articles are often long and complex
  • Scholarly publications do not include a lot of advertisements for consumer products; ads are limited to scholarly or academic products and services
  • Popular articles usually focus on entertainment, news, or general awareness on an issue; writing style is usually direct and easy to understand

Scholarly journal articles are reviewed and fully critiqued by subject experts for research accuracy & importance before being published; popular magazines are not as rigorous.
  • Scholarly journals prominently list their editors or editorial board, and the academic or institutional affiliations of those people
  • Scholarly publications will often specifically label themselves as a "peer reviewed" journal - this means scholarly subject experts review and critique each article submission before it's accepted for publication
  • Scholarly journals often specify a certain style guide or other rules to follow for those wanting to submit a paper
  • Scholarly journals are often published by an academic institution or scholarly association
  • Popular magazines rarely highlight or comment on their editorial review process

Where you find publications for sale is a clue. It may be difficult to locate scholarly journals at all outside of research libraries; popular magazines are usually much easier to find.
  • Scholarly journals are typically found in research library collections; they may sometimes be found for sale in larger academic bookstores;
  • Popular magazines may be found for sale in grocery stores, discount stores, newsstands, bookstores, and elsewhere
  • Public libraries often collect a great variety of popular magazines, but typically collect fewer scholarly research journals


Scholarly journals are usually published two or four times a year; popular magazines may be published daily, weekly, or monthly.
  • Popular magazines are typically published very frequently, as often as weekly or monthly - remember that their purpose is to entertain and provide news & general awareness on topics of interest
  • Scholarly journals are typically released only a few times per year - remember that the purpose of scholarly journals is to promote research and learning in specialized scholarly disciplines.
  • The peer-review editorial process adds to the publication timeline of scholarly journals and the articles they publish - it takes longer to critique and review submitted articles before they are published

Visual layout and design of scholarly journals focus most often on text, graphs, charts, and tables; popular magazines may focus on glossy color photographs of people, products, and places.
  • Visual appeal is a strong hint about the audience the publication seeks and the purpose of the publication
  • Scholarly journals for most fields tend to be text-based (except fields such as art and design)
  • Front covers of scholarly journals often list contents, authors, or may feature a simple design repeated for each issue; contents are listed to attract intellectual / scholarly research interest
  • Popular magazines usually feature eye-catching front covers; glossy photographs of celebrities or models; contents may be described in a commercial or exaggerated manner meant to attract attention and promote sales

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