3.G: Types of Library & Internet Sources

What are differences between SCHOLARLY and POPULAR SOURCES?

Journals, magazines, and newspapers are important sources for up-to-date information in all disciplines.  In this guide four categories have been created with criteria and descriptions.

  • Scholarly
  • Substantive News/General Interest
  • Popular
  • Sensational


Scholarly or peer-reviewed journal articles are written by scholars or professionals who are experts in their fields. In the sciences and social sciences, they often publish research results.

Substantive news articles are reliable sources of information on events and issues of public concern.

Popular articles reflect the tastes of the general public and are often meant as entertainment.

Sensational articles intend to arouse strong curiosity, interest, or reaction. They are not factually accurate.

Keeping these definitions in mind, and realizing that none of the lines drawn between types of journals can ever be totally clear cut, the general criteria are as follows:

TYPE I:  Scholarly/Peer-Reviewed

Scholarly journals are also called academic, peer-reviewed, or refereed journals. Strictly speaking, peer-reviewed (also called refereed) journals refer only to those scholarly journals that submit articles to several other scholars, experts, or academics (peers) in the field for review and comment. These reviewers must agree that the article represents properly conducted original research or writing before it can be published.

What to look for:

  • abstract, a descriptive summary of the article contents, before the main text of the article
  • sober, serious look; graphs and charts but few glossy pages or exciting pictures
  • footnotes or bibliographies (sometimes lengthy)
  • published 3 or 4 times/year
  • lengthy articles

Articles are written by a scholar in the field or by someone who has done research in the field. The affiliations of the authors are listed, usually at the bottom of the first page or at the end of the article–universities, research institutions, think tanks, and the like. The language of scholarly journals is that of the discipline covered. It assumes some technical background on the part of the reader.

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.

Examples of Scholarly Journals

  • American Economic Review
  • Applied Geography
  • Archives of Sexual Behavior
  • JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association
  • Journal of Marriage and the Family (published by the National Council on Family Relations)
  • Journal of Theoretical Biology
  • Modern Fiction Studies

TYPE II: Substantive News or General Interest

These periodicals may be quite attractive in appearance, although some are in newspaper format. Articles are often heavily illustrated, generally with photographs.

What to look for:

  • sometimes cite sources, though more often do not
  • writers:  a member of the editorial staff, a scholar or a free lance writer
  • language geared to any educated audience; no specialty assumed, only interest and a certain level of intelligence
  • published by commercial enterprises or individuals, or specific professional organizations
  • provide information, in a general manner, to a broad audience of concerned citizens
  • published weekly or monthly
  • available at grocery stores and bookstores

Examples of Substantive News or General Interest Periodicals

  • The Economist
  • National Geographic
  • The New York Times
  • Scientific American
  • Vital Speeches of the Day

TYPE III:  Popular

Popular periodicals come in many formats, although often slick and attractive in appearance with lots of color graphics (photographs, drawings, etc.). These publications do not cite sources in a bibliography. Information published in popular periodicals is often second or third hand and the original source is rarely mentioned.

  • very short articles and written in simple language
  • used to entertain the reader
  • used to sell products (their own or their advertisers)
  • used to promote a viewpoint
  • available in grocery stories and bookstores

Examples of Popular Periodicals

  • Ebony
  • Parents
  • People
  • Weekly
  • Readers Digest
  • Sports Illustrated
  • Vogue

TYPE IV: Sensational

Sensational periodicals come in a variety of styles, but often use a newspaper format. Their language is elementary and occasionally inflammatory or sensational. They assume a certain gullibility in their audience.

The main purpose of sensational magazines seems to be to arouse curiosity and to cater to popular superstitions. They often do so with flashy headlines designed to astonish (e.g., Half- man Half-woman Makes Self Pregnant).

Examples of Sensational Periodicals

  • Globe
  • National Examiner
  • Star
  • Weekly World News

Here’s another approach to understanding the differences among sources:

Some sources are better than others

Most students probably know by now that if they cite Wikipedia as an authoritative source, the wrath of their professor shall be visited upon them. Why is it that even the most informative Wikipedia articles are still often considered illegitimate? And what are good sources to use? The table below summarizes types of secondary sources in four tiers. All sources have their legitimate uses, but the top-tier ones are preferable for citation.

Tier Type Content Uses How to find them
1 Peer-reviewed academic publications Rigorous research and analysis Provide strong evidence for claims and references to other high-quality sources Google Scholar, library catalogs, and academic article databases
2 Reports, articles, and books from credible non-academic sources Well researched and even-handed descriptions of an event or state of the world Initial research on events or trends not yet analyzed in the academic literature; may reference important Tier 1 sources Websites of relevant agencies, Google searches using (site: *.gov or site: *.org), academic article databases
3 Short pieces from newspapers or credible websites Simple reporting of events, research findings, or policy changes Often point to useful Tier 2 or Tier 1 sources, may provide a factoid or two not found anywhere else Strategic Google searches or article databases including newspapers and magazines
4 Agenda-driven or uncertain pieces Mostly opinion, varying in thoughtfulness and credibility May represent a particular position within a debate; more often provide keywords and clues about higher quality sources Non-specific Google searches

Tier 1: Peer-reviewed academic publications

These are sources from the mainstream academic literature: books and scholarly articles. Academic books generally fall into three categories: (1) textbooks written with students in mind, (2) monographs which give an extended report on a large research project, and (3) edited volumes in which each chapter is authored by different people. Scholarly articles appear in academic journals, which are published multiple times a year in order to share the latest research findings with scholars in the field. They’re usually sponsored by some academic society. To get published, these articles and books had to earn favorable anonymous evaluations by qualified scholars. Who are the experts writing, reviewing, and editing these scholarly publications? Professors. Learning how to read and use these sources is a fundamental part of being a college student.

Tier 2: Reports, articles and books from credible non-academic sources

Some events and trends are too recent to appear in Tier 1 sources. Also, Tier 1 sources tend to be highly specific, and sometimes you need a more general perspective on a topic. Thus, Tier 2 sources can provide quality information that is more accessible to non-academics. There are three main categories. First, official reports from government agencies or major international institutions like the World Bank or the United Nations; these institutions generally have research departments staffed with qualified experts who seek to provide rigorous, even-handed information to decision-makers. Second, feature articles from major newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, London Times, or The Economist are based on original reporting by experienced journalists (not press releases) and are typically 1500+ words in length. Third, there are some great books from non-academic presses that cite their sources; they’re often written by journalists. All three of these sources are generally well researched descriptions of an event or state of the world, undertaken by credentialed experts who generally seek to be even-handed. The writer must judge their credibility. Instructors and campus librarians can advise students on which sources in this category have the most credibility.

Tier 3. Short pieces from periodicals or credible websites

A step below the well-developed reports and feature articles that make up Tier 2 are the short tidbits that one finds in newspapers and magazines or credible websites. How short is a short news article? Usually, they’re just a couple paragraphs or less, and they’re often reporting on just one thing: an event, an interesting research finding, or a policy change. They don’t take extensive research and analysis to write, and many just summarize a press release written and distributed by an organization or business. They may describe things like corporate mergers, newly discovered diet-health links, or important school-funding legislation. Cite Tier 3 sources in a paper if they provide an important factoid or two that isn’t provided by a higher-tier piece, but if the Tier 3 article describes a particular study or academic expert, the best option is to find the journal article or book it is reporting on and use that Tier 1 source instead. If the article mentions which journal the study was published in, go right to that journal through a library’s website. Sometimes students can find the original journal article by putting the scholar’s name and some keywords into Google Scholar.

What counts as a credible website in this tier? Conduct some research on the person or organization who published the source. For example, if the organization is clearly agenda-driven or not up-front about its aims and/or funding sources, then it definitely isn’t something that should be cited as a neutral authority. Also look for signs of expertise. A tidbit about a medical research finding written by someone with a science background carries more weight than the same topic written by a policy analyst. These sources are sometimes uncertain, which is all the more reason to follow the trail to a Tier 1 or Tier 2 source whenever possible.