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Distinguishing Scholarly Journals From Periodicals

Journals and magazines are important sources for up-to-date information in all disciplines. In a large and diverse periodical collection, it is often difficult to distinguish between the various levels of scholarship found in the collection. In this guide we have divided the criteria for periodical literature into four categories:


Websters Third International Dictionary defines scholarly as:

1) concerned with academic study, especially research,

2) exhibiting the methods and attitudes of a scholar, and

3) having the manner and appearance of a scholar.

Substantive is defined as having a solid base, being substantial.

Popular means fit for, or reflecting the taste and intelligence of, the people at large.

Sensational is defined as arousing or intending to arouse strong curiosity, interest or reaction.

In Magazines for Libraries, Katz defines peer reviewed (refereed) journals.
"The term is used to indicate that manuscripts submitted to a publisher are examined both by the editor and one or more specialists in the individual field before approval is given to publish.  The readers (sometimes called and editorial board) apparently insure a better chance that the final product will be a contribution to knowledge."

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.


Scholarly journals generally have a sober, serious look. They often contain many graphs and charts but few glossy pages or exciting pictures.

Scholarly journals always cite their sources in the form of footnotes or bibliographies.

Articles are written by a scholar in the field or by someone who has done research in the field and go through a peer-review process.

The language of scholarly journals is that of the discipline covered. It assumes some scholarly 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.


American Economic Review

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)

Modern Fiction Studies

Sex Roles: A Journal of Research


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

News and general interest periodicals sometimes cite sources, though more often do not.

Articles may be written by a member of the editorial staff, a scholar or a free lance writer.

The language of these publications is geared to any educated audience. There is no specialty assumed, only interest and a certain level of intelligence.

They are generally published by commercial enterprises or individuals, although some emanate from specific professional organizations.

The main purpose of periodicals in this category is to provide information, in a general manner, to a broad audience of concerned citizens.


Christian Science Monitor


National Geographic

New York Times

Scientific American

Vital Speeches of the Day


Popular periodicals come in many formats, although often somewhat slick and attractive in appearance. Lots of graphics (photographs, drawings, etc.).

These publications rarely, if ever, cite sources. Information published in such journals is often second or third hand and the original source is sometimes obscure.

Authors are generally magazine staff members of free lance writers.

Articles are usually very short, written in simple language and are designed to meet a minimal education level. There is generally little depth to the content of these articles.

The main purpose of popular periodicals is to entertain the reader, to sell products (their own or their advertisers), and/or to promote a viewpoint.





People Weekly

Readers Digest

Sports Illustrated




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 ).



National Examiner


Weekly World News


There are reference books which describe and evaluate periodicals. For evaluations of specific periodicals, use:

Katz, William A., Magazines for Libraries. New York: Bowker.
(R 016.05 K159m)

" annotated listing by subject of some 6,500 periodicals." (Preface.) Each entry gives name of periodical, beginning publication date, publisher, editor, address, price and such information as indexing, size, and level of audience. Short abstracts describe the scope, political slant, and other aspects of the publication. Arrangement is topical, bringing magazines and journals on like subjects together. To find an individual title, use the title index at the end of the volume.

This document has been made available with permission of Cornell University's Olin*Kroch*Uris Libraries, the Reference Services Division, and modified to return you to Roesch Library's tutorial. Other modifications include deleting a reference to Cornell in the first paragraph, changing the citation for Magazines for Libraries, adding the Beloit College Library logo, and changing the background color.