Library:Scholarly versus Popular Sources
A scholarly publication is one in which the content is written by experts in a particular field of study - generally for the purpose of sharing original research or analyzing others' findings. Scholarly work will thoroughly cite all source materials used and is usually subject to "peer review" prior to publication. This means that independent experts in the field review, or "referee" the publication to check the accuracy and validity of its claims. The primary audience for this sort of work is fellow experts and students studying the field. As a result the content is typically much more sophisticated and advanced than articles found in general magazines, or professional/trade journals.
In brief, scholarly work is:
- written by experts for experts
- based on original research or intellectual inquiry
- provides citations for all sources used
- is usually peer reviewed 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.
While many of your research projects will require you to read articles published in scholarly journals, books or other peer reviewed source of information, there is also a wealth of information to be found in more popular publications. These aim to inform a wide array of readers about issues of interest and are much more informal in tone and scope. 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.
These are more specialized in nature than popular publications, but are not intended to be scholarly. These types of publications are aimed at experts in the field and/or keen amateurs, but the content focuses on news, trends in the field, promotional material etc. Research findings are not typically disseminated here - though they may report that a scholarly publication is forthcoming. These types of publications typically will contain more advertising than a scholarly journal - though it's usually targeted to the field in some way. Examples: Publishers Weekly; Variety; Education Digest
There are key differences between scholarly, popular and professional publications. For a side-by-side comparison check out our Quick Reference chart.
If you'd like to print out a copy of the comparison chart you can download a PDF version here.
Finding Scholarly Research
A journal database allows you to use keywords to search the full-text of hundreds to thousands of journals. Many databases allow you to limit your results to items that were peer-reviewed. Check the results page to see if there are any "refine results" options - this is where you will typically find a "limit to peer-review" function. Note:
- peer-review limiters are not available in every database
- no algorithm is perfect - it's still up to you to assess your chosen sources and ensure their suitability for your research.
To find a good database for research on your topic check out:
- Research guides - these are written by subject librarians and include links to the best databases for finding research on a specific subject area.
Summon is UBC Library's one-stop search tool. With Summon you can look for your keywords in the full text of our online journals, e-books and digitized newspapers, and much more. Summon also provides a click-box which lets you limit your results to "articles from scholarly publications, including peer-review."
- To see how that works check out this video clip:
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 title 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.
Some publications have many characteristics of a scholarly work but are not typically peer-reviewed. These can be valuable sources for your research but note - the extent to which a particular work would benefit (i.e., be more accurate, valid, balanced, useful etc.) from formal scrutiny is not always clear to a non-expert. For this reason you should be cautious about using a majority of non-refereed sources for your research.
- Government documents: A vast array of publications are produced by government bodies.
- Some of these - particularly technical data, departmental/agency research reports, scientific assessment reports, statistics etc. - while not peer-reviewed - are produced by subject experts and have most of the characteristics of a scholarly publication.
- Other government publications, such as consumer fact sheets, MP briefing notes, white papers, Royal Commission reports, trade/industry publications, etc. are written for a general audience and cannot be considered "scholarly" in nature even if they are useful in terms of providing context or background knowledge on a topic.
- You will have to assess each government publication you wish to use to ensure that it is appropriate source material for your purposes.
- Conference proceedings: Are compilations of papers presented at conferences. These papers are sometimes the base material for future refereed publications, sometimes have already been peer-reviewed and sometimes never appear again after the conference.
- You will need to check the status of any material you find in a collection of conference proceedings to ensure that it is suitable for your research.
- Ways to check if such materials are scholarly or not include: consulting the preface to the collection, checking the conference website, contacting the presenter directly or asking your instructor for advice.
- Theses & Dissertations: While subject to rigorous review, theses and dissertations are not universally considered to have been peer-reviewed. Check with your instructor to determine if these are acceptable sources for your research.
- Books from academic/university presses: If a book's editorial board is not comprised of subject experts it cannot be considered peer-reviewed, yet it may still be a very useful source. Ask yourself: is the author an expert in the field? Does the book have all the other criteria of a scholarly publication besides being peer-reviewed? If yes to both - the book will likely be a useful addition to your collection of (mostly refereed) research sources.
You can confirm your assessment of a particular article or book by checking out:
- Book Reviews: will generally include assessments of the book's quality, accuracy, validity, objectivity etc and may also mention any other form of peer review to which it has been subjected.
- Ulrich's: Ulrich's Periodicals Directory is a bibliographic database providing detailed, comprehensive, and authoritative information on serials published throughout the world - including whether or not a particular journal is referred.
- Peer Review filters: Most databases and many library catalogues offer users the ability to click a box on the results page which will limit to items that have been peer-reviewed.
- Use this feature carefully as some products automatically eliminate all book results regardless of review status.
- Publisher's website: Use the publisher's website to look for information about the review process for its titles. This is especially crucial for scholarly books as not all academic presses are able to provide a rigorous editorial review by the author's peers.
- Preface: Scan the preface and other introductory pages of academic books for details about the editorial board, such as affiliation, degrees held, areas of current research etc. You can also confirm board members' credentials on their professional webpages or departmental websites.
View the following video for a brief recap of the highlights from this guide:
- Accurate sub-titles have been uploaded. Click the Youtube Subtitles/CC icon to turn them on.