Distinguishing Scholarly Journals from Magazines

Periodicals (newspapers, magazines & journals) are important sources for research papers because the information found in them will often times be more up-to-date than that found in books. It's necessary to distinguish between the levels of scholarship found in magazines & journals, and to select publications appropriate to the research you're undertaking. Magazines and journals can be separated into the following categories:

Scholarly Journals
News/General Interest Magazines
Popular Magazines
Sensational Periodicals
About Full-text Articles

Scholarly Journals

  • generally have a plain appearance and may contain charts and graphs, but few glossy pages or pictures.
  • often contain lengthy, substantive or in-depth articles.
  • cite their sources in the form of footnotes or bibliographies.
  • written in the formal academic language of the discipline covered, and assumes the reader has some educational background.
  • articles written by scholars or experts who have completed research in the field that are reporting their results to the rest of the scholarly community.
  • Examples of scholarly journals include: Political Science Quarterly, Journal of the American Medical Association, Poetry Review, and GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

My instructor mentioned peer reviewed and refereed journals -- what in blazes are those?

Refereed and peer reviewed journals are considered to be very reputable and scholarly.

  • Refereed journals contain articles that are evaluated by at least one subject expert in addition to the editor before being accepted for publication.
  • Peer reviewed journals may solicit the opinions of several members from the research and academic community before accepting an article for publication.

News/General Interest Magazines

  • generally designed to appeal to mass audiences with good use of illustrations and photographs.
  • sometimes cite their sources, but more often don't.
  • articles are written by an editorial staff member, journalist, or freelance writer whose name may or may not be listed.
  • writing style may assume the reader has a certain educational level, but no special knowledge or background is generally required.
  • main purpose of these periodicals is to provide news and information for a broad audience.
  • Examples include: Time, Newsweek, The Economist, and Psychology Today.

Popular Magazines

  • often glossy in appearance with many photographs, advertisements and other graphics.
  • rarely, if ever, cite their sources. 
  • short articles are written in less sophisticated language by staff members or freelance authors who may or may not be listed.
  • designed to provide entertainment, give practical information or sell an advertiser's products. 
  • Examples of popular magazines include: In Style, Entertainment Weekly, People and Vogue.

Sensational Periodicals

  • style varies, but a tabloid format is most often used.
  • language is informal and often inflammatory or sensational.
  • assume their audience has a certain gullibility level.
  • purpose is most often arousing curiosity and catering to popular superstitions.
  • generally have flashy headlines designed to astonish (for example: "12 U.S. Senators are Space Aliens" or “Woman Sells Twins for Two Beers”).
  • Examples of sensational periodicals include: The National Enquirer, The Globe and The Star.

But what about full-text articles? How can I tell what type of article I'm reading online?

Articles in the electronic environment lack such physical elements as glossy pages, making it more challenging to distinguish periodical types.  To further complicate matters, photographs, charts and illustrations that appear in the print version may be reformatted or entirely left out of an electronic full-text article.

Though it's more difficult to evaluate periodical types online, you can use some of the same information above to help you make an educated guess.  Ask yourself the following questions about the full-text article:

  • Is it brief and to the point (more indicative of a magazine), or is it lengthy and more in-depth or substantive (characteristic of a scholarly journal)?
  • Does it list the author of the article (more than likely a magazine if not)?
  • Is it written in sophisticated, academic language (scholarly journal), or is the writing style more informal (news, general interest or popular magazine)?
  • Does the article cite its sources in a bibliography or footnotes (characteristic of a scholarly journal)?

When in doubt, investigate further ...

  • Search the web. Performing a phrase search on the journal title (use quotation marks, for example "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology") will often lead you to the publisher's website. There you can read about the journal's editorial policies, content and scope.
  • Consult Magazines for Libraries (REF DESK PN4832.B1M23 2007) for further information about a journal or magazine. This resource describes thousands of periodicals and includes information about the content, scope, political leaning and intended audience of each title. Use the title index at the back of the book to find information about a specific magazine or journal. 


Page updated 8/13/2013. 
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