Library:Module 5 Scholarly and Popular

From UBC Wiki

5.3 Scholarly and Popular Sources

What is a Scholarly Source?

A scholarly publication is one in which the content is written by experts for experts in a particular field of study - using the terminology of the discipline. Scholarly articles and books cite all their references and provide a comprehensive bibliography or list of works cited. They are typically published by academic presses or scholarly societies and are subject to some form of external review before publication, e.g., being reviewed by an editorial board or group of peer-reviewers. The purpose of publishing such work is to share original research or analyze others' findings. As a result, the content is much more sophisticated and advanced than what you will find in general magazines or popular books.

In short, scholarly work is:

  • written by experts for experts
  • written using discipline-specific terminology
  • based on original research or intellectual inquiry
  • provides citations for all sources used
  • published by a scholarly press or society
  • usually reviewed by fellow experts prior to publication

To see the typical components of a scholarly journal article check out the Anatomy of a Scholarly Article from North Carolina State University Libraries.

What is a Popular Source?

In addition to scholarly articles, books or other peer-reviewed sources of information, you will find many popular sources in your search results lists. Popular books and magazines are written to appeal to a wide array of readers and are much more informal in language, tone and scope. They are typically written by journalists or other professional writers and do not normally include citations or bibliographies. They usually contain consumer ads and images which are included solely to make the publication look attractive. Their purpose in being published is to make a profit for the publisher and advertisers. Examples include general news, business and entertainment publications such as Time Magazine, Business Weekly, Vanity Fair.

  • Note, special interest publications which are not specifically written for an academic audience are also considered "popular", i.e., National Geographic, Scientific American, Psychology Today.

Are scholarly sources better than popular sources?

The answer really depends on the nature of your assignment. Looking at a popular source is a great way to get ideas for your topic as well as some background information. Popular sources can also provide fascinating insight into social and cultural attitudes in a particular place and time - making them valuable primary source material for historians and sociologists.

On the other hand, you'll notice that many of your assignments specify that you must use scholarly materials. This helps ensure that you learn about your topic from reliable and accurate sources. In turn, you can develop your own ideas with the assurance that they are rooted in fact.

What to Check

Print Materials

Scholarly sources are easy to spot in print. There are visual and physical cues to help you out. For example, academic journals are often published in black and white, and text will take up most of the space on the page. You won't see any consumer advertizing or product samples and images will usually only appear if they are part of the article, such as graphs, charts and photographs provided by the author. Scholarly books usually have plain covers with few or no design elements.

Popular sources are equally easy to identify when you look at them in print. If a publication has slick graphics, glossy paper and ads for consumer products, you're probably looking at a popular magazine. A popular book will likely have a visually appealing book cover or dust jacket. They are designed to help the book sell - and you may also see designs or illustrations inside which only serve to make the book look attractive.

Online Materials

It can be trickier to decide what you have when the material is online. You won't have any physical clues to make your job easy so you'll have to scan through the work to make an assessment.

Questions to Ask Squarefaq.png
  • Is the author an expert in the field?
  • Are all quotes and references cited? Can you verify the citations?
  • Is there a bibliography?
  • Is the writing at a university level?
  • Is the publisher an academic press or scholarly society?
  • Are there consumer ads or product samples enclosed?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • If the author conducted original research, is the data available in some manner for you to review?

Mini Activity

Look at the two articles shown in this guide from Chalmer Davee Library.

  • Look at the popular example: what three features make it clear to you that it really is a popular article?
  • What features make it clear that the other example is scholarly?

Where to Look for Scholarly Sources

Limit to scholarly results


Summon, the Library's search engine: Simply type in your keywords and look at your results list. Go to Refine Your Search in the top left menu to check off either "Limit to articles from scholarly publications" or "Limit to articles from peer-reviewed publications."

  • Note, the scholarly limiter in Summon - or any other database/search service is not perfect. You may occasionally find a popular article which has mistakenly been included in a "peer-review only" results list. It's ultimately up to you to assess each source to make sure it's scholarly.


Databases sometimes contain articles from popular magazines or newspapers: Just like Summon, databases like this will have a box you can check to limit your results to content from "scholarly" and/or "peer-reviewed" journals.

  • Not sure which database to try? The Library's research guides have recommendations for the best databases for every discipline taught at UBC.

Google Scholar

Search engines like Google are a great source of popular materials but don't provide access to much scholarly information. Even if you find a few suitable items, they will be a very tiny proportion of the research which has been published on your topic.

  • Google does have a specialty search service called Google Scholar which provides links to a wide range of scholarly sources.
    • Google Scholar looks a lot like Google, but many results will not be freely available. If the Library does not own or license an item, you will not be able to access it directly from Google Scholar. You can contact the InterLibrary Loan department if there's something you need that the Library does not have.
  • Go to Google Scholar from here, on the Library Website if you are working off-campus - this ensures that the system gives you access to everything the Library owns or licenses.


Books from Academic Publishers: University presses and the educational/science units of major commercial presses also publish scholarly research - most of which is subject to review by editorial boards.

  • Note, sometimes the editorial boards are comprised of subject experts and sometimes they are comprised of scholars from a range of fields. Occasionally they will simply be professional editors.

To determine if a book has been peer-reviewed you will have to:

  • Look at the information about the editorial board which is included in the book or on the publisher's website.
  • Look at the affiliation and qualifications of the board members to see whether they are "peers" of the author or not.
    • If the majority are not experts in the same field, the book has not been peer-reviewed.

For a brief recap of the points covered above, watch this video: