Popular vs. Scholarly Periodicals

Periodicals (journals and magazines) are often divided into two main categories: popular and scholarly.  Following are six criteria--referencescontentauthorshiplanguageappearance, and publishers--you can apply to periodicals and periodical articles to determine whether they are scholarly or popular.  

These criteria offer general considerations when evaluating a periodical, or a particular article, and are listed in order of importance.  The last two criteria--appearance and publishers--are more variable and cannot be counted on as reliable indicators.  If you ever are in doubt whether an article is scholarly or popular, ask your faculty member or use the references criteria as the deciding factor.

Below is a chart comparing scholarly versus popular periodicals for each of the six criteria.

References Always include a list of cited references  Do not cite references
Content Report on original research projects Report on current events, trends, issues, or practices
Format Have a distinct structure No apparent structure
Authorship Names, credentials, and contact information provided Names occasionally given; rarely credentials or contact information
Language Written in technical language, specific to a particular discipline Written using language understandable to high school graduate
Appearance Very serious looking; rarely includes color photographs or advertisements Flashy appearance, glossy paper, color print and advertisements
Publishers Often published by professional organizations Mainly published by commercial publishers
  • Scholarly articles always have a list of references cited, either at the end of the articles or throughout via footnotes.

References to particular sources allows credit to be given to other people's ideas and to show how past research has shaped the current study under discussion.  Also, references provide a check and balance system for the reader.  If you question the claims or arguments of an author, you can always go back and look at the cited references to confirm the author's statements are based on a sound interpretation of existing data or facts.

  • Popular articles rarely, if ever, cite references.

Because the reader has little means for corroborating any statements within the article, popular articles must be used with caution if you intend to make claims of truth.

  • Scholarly articles often report on original research projects, which rely on a structured and replicable procedure for gathering data or understanding some phenomena or situation.  

This method often takes the form of experiments (sciences or social sciences) or literature analyses (humanities).  By reporting on original research projects, scholarly articles do not summarize the project under discussion.  Rather, they provide ample details so the reader can understand the need for the project, the methods used for gathering data or performing analyses, the results of the project, and the importance of these results to a discipline.

  • Popular periodicals often report on current events, trends, issues, or practices.

Articles are written for the general public or for a particular profession or trade and are intended to entertain or provide general information on a topic. These articles often promote a particular point of view (e.g. the conservative opinions in The Nation), although some attempt to be more middle of the road (e.g. Newsweek).  Results of original research may be mentioned, but only summarized.  Popular articles are good for learning about people's views on various issues or to understand a current event from a non-scientific point of view.

  • Scholarly articles, especially those in the sciences and many in the social sciences, are arranged in a particular format: abstract, introduction, literature review, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, references cited.  

These sections are representative of the scientific method used in these disciplines.  Although all of these sections will be present, they may not be fully labeled as such.  For example one article may not have a heading titled "introduction"  where as another may present the conclusion within the "discussion" section. In the humanities and some of the social sciences, articles often do not follow such a format.  Rather, they appear as well organized and argued essays, often with separate sections, but with no distinct section headings.  However, references to other sources will be provided, either as a list at the end, or throughout the article as footnotes. 

  • Popular articles often do not follow a particular structure.

Any apparent structure via section headings are often subjective, based on the thoughts of the writer or editors for a particular periodical.

  • Scholarly articles are written by scholars or experts in the field and always include the name of the authors.  In addition, information is often provided on where the authors are employed, their addresses, and occasionally, additional writings by the authors. 

One of the reasons for including this information is to help establish the authors' credibility.   Another is to provide the readers with an opportunity to contact the authors if they have questions about the study or project. Note, in some scholarly periodicals, although the names of the authors will be given on the title page of an article, contact information and credentials might be listed at the beginning or end of the journal under a list of contributors.

  • Popular articles are often written by staff writers at a particular periodical and their names are often not provided.  At times, an author's name will be given, but without any credentials or contact information.

Since popular articles aim to provide information on current events or opinions, and do not attempt to meet the rigorous methods employed in scholarly studies, it is less important to identify the authors of an article.
  • Scholarly articles include  language or technical jargon unique to a particular discipline.

Scholarly articles are written by scholars for other scholars, which makes them difficult to understand for lay readers or those with only basic training in a field.  

  • Popular articles are written using language common to people with a high school education. 

Since popular periodicals are meant for the general public, they are written in a way that is approachable by as wide an audience as possible.  Those popular periodicals directed to a particular profession or trade (e.g. American Libraries for librarians) may include jargon unfamiliar to the general public, but overall, the articles are written in a non-technical manner.

  • Scholarly periodicals tend to have a very serious look. 

The purpose of scholarly periodicals is to publish information relevant to particular disciplines that has been gathered using rigorous and structured methods.  This information is so valued and unique, these periodicals do not have to attract readers based on appearance.   As a result, these periodicals rarely include flashy advertisements, and photographs are minimal, usually in black and white.  More common are graphs and tables, which are used to represent data.  Any advertisements present in scholarly periodicals tend to be directed toward scholarly products or services.  Note, some very scholarly publications (e.g. Nature, Science, Journal of the American Medical Association, etc.) do have more colorful advertisements and print.  However, as a whole, scholarly journals are less showy than popular periodicals.

  • Popular periodicals contain glossy paper, color photographs or images, unique layouts, and flashy advertisements.

As mentioned earlier, the purpose of popular periodicals is to entertain or inform readers about current events or issues. These events or issues are often covered by many different periodicals, thus there is intense competition for readers. In order to compete, these periodicals and the companies that advertise in them use appearance as a selling point. Depending on the focus of the periodical, advertisements will be directed to the interests of a general reader or those belonging to a particular profession or trade.

  • Scholarly periodicals are often published by professional organizations.

Professional organizations (e.g. Academy of Political Science, Nordic Ecological Society, American Historical Association), consist of members who have working experience or an educational background in a particular discipline. As a result, these organizations tend to publish periodicals relating to their memberships' interests. However, not all publications from a professional organization are scholarly.  Some, such as American Libraries (mentioned earlier), are written as a general news source for the profession and not as a scholarly source of information.

  • Many popular periodicals are published by commercial companies.

Commercial publishers (e.g. Rodale Publishers for Organic Gardening, Time Mirror Magazines for Outdoor Life,  Time Warner for Time, etc.) are concerned about making a profit and as a result, will target their publications to as wide an audience as possible. You commonly see popular periodicals on magazine racks in local bookstores or grocery stores. However, some popular periodicals are published by professional organizations, e.g. National Wildlife by the National Wildlife Federation or the AAHE Bulletin by the American Association of Higher Education. These publications will have much smaller circulation and may only be available in libraries or through a personal subscription.

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