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This lesson prepares students to understand and recognize the differences between scholarly and popular periodicals, particularly in the sciences and social sciences. Using demonstration, class discussion and hands-on search exercises, students will learn about the scholarly publishing model, practice differentiating between scholarly and non-scholarly sources in electronic and print formats, understand why scholarly sources are often preferable for academic work, and learn techniques for seeking out scholarly material.

The lesson has been used as part of a fourteen session, one-credit Information Literacy course, but it also serves well as a single session on the differences between scholarly and popular periodicals.
Goals & Objectives:

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:


·   Understand the peer-review system and how it differs from other publishing models

·   Know how to seek out an original, scholarly research article from a “lead” in a popular periodical, newspaper or trade periodical article

·   Know the characteristics and features that differentiate scholarly and popular periodicals

·   Become familiar with strategies for finding scholarly articles

Materials & Sources:

Equipment/Software Needed


·   Instructor’s computer station with projection capabilities

·   At least five student computer terminals

·   Internet connection and browser access on all computers

·   Subscription to EbscoHOST Academic Search Premier or another comprehensive indexing/full-text database


Time Required

  • Approximately 50 minutes



In advance of the class, the librarian will choose a pair of articles to use as examples.  One article will be a peer-reviewed research article (source article); the other will be a short non-scholarly article that mentions or reports on the results of the source article. 


Suggested article pairs:

·   J.R. Minkel, “Prozac Spurs Neuron Growth…,” Scientific American Mind, 2006, vol. 17, issue 4, p. 8 (Available in EbscoHOST Academic Search Premier)

·   J.M. Encinas, A. Vaahtokari, and G. Enikolopov, “Fluoxetine targets early progenitor cells in the adult brain,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, May 23, 2006, vol. 103, issue 21, p. 8233-8238 (Indexed in EbscoHOST Academic Search Premier and PubMed; available in full-text through PubMed Central)


·   “What the Groundhog Doesn’t Know,” USA Today Magazine, March 2006, vol. 134, issue 2730, p. 6-7 (Available in EbscoHOST Academic Search Premier)

·   Robert X. Black and Brent A. McDaniel, “Stratosphere-Troposphere Coupling During Spring Onset,” Journal of Climate, October 2006, vol. 19, issue 19, p. 4891-4901 (Available in EbscoHOST Academic Search Premier)


The librarian should also gather print examples of some scholarly, popular, and trade periodicals, as well as periodicals with mixed content (peer-reviewed articles as well as trade or popular features- JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, is a good example).  Distribute these periodicals throughout the students’ stations/desks before they arrive. 





Begin by mentioning that professors often ask students to use “scholarly” articles in their work.  But what, exactly, is a scholarly article?  How can you identify scholarly articles?  Furthermore, what databases and search techniques can you use to find them? 


Display an electronic version of the previously selected non-scholarly article on the instructor’s terminal and hand out copies of the article to students.  Ask students to take a moment to look at the article and guess whether it would be considered a “scholarly” article.  Give students 1-2 minutes to skim through the article.


Discuss.  If students appear to be of mixed opinion, take a vote by asking each student, one by one, if they think the article is scholarly.  Keep a tally on the classroom’s white board (if available).  As you query students, ask them their reasons for believing the article is or is not scholarly.  Note salient points on the white board.


Before confirming the nature of the example article, explain the peer-review process to students (or ask if any students know this concept and have them explain it).  Articles considered “scholarly” are usually peer-reviewed (sometimes referred to as “refereed”).  Compare the peer-review process to a non-peer reviewed periodical’s editorial process. 

·   Scholarly: Article is written by scholars/researchers to share the results of original research; article is examined by peer experts to judge its quality, methodology, value, etc.

·   Popular: Article is written by staff or freelance writers and accepted by an editor 

Once students understand the peer-review process, ask them again if the example article is “scholarly.”  Most will now recognize that it is not.


Tracing the Source

Ask students to suppose that the article deals with a topic that they are examining in a term paper.  Should they quote this article or is there a more appropriate source to work from?


Ask students to open up Academic Search Premier (this may need to be demonstrated by the librarian) and search for the original, corresponding scholarly article that the subsequent article used as its source.


Give students five minutes to try and find the original article.  If a student was successful, ask him or her to come to the instructor’s terminal to demonstrate how he/she found the article.


What’s the Difference?

Ask students to speculate on the value of scholarly, or peer-reviewed, publications.  Why did we go through the trouble of locating the peer-reviewed source article?  Examples:

·   Written by the researchers themselves- right from the horses mouth, so to speak

·   Quality and reliability has been vouched for by peer reviewers

·   Offers the full report, often including charts, graphs, methodology, etc; subsequent sources may be watered down, inaccurate, or misleading

·   Contains valuable reference lists

·   Describes the research process and method used, so readers can judge for themselves whether they think the information provided seems relevant and reliable


If scholarly sources are often preferable for academic work, then what are some valid uses for non-scholarly periodicals?

·   Entertainment

·   To be informed of issues, trends, new research, news

·   For up-to-the-minute information

·   Background information; a starting place for further research

·   To identify key people, places, events, related to a certain topic

·   To identify keywords for further searching


Now ask students to look at each article example and identify the characteristics that differentiate them.  Students might notice such things as the presence/absence of advertising, the length of the articles, the presence/absence of references, etc. 


Open up the “How Do I… Tell the Difference Between a Scholarly and a Popular Periodical” web site on the instructor’s terminal, and ask students to follow along on their computers as well (  This is the page we use at Skidmore but there are many other fine examples at other academic library sites).  Go through the criteria outlined on the site and point out relevant features in the two sample articles.

·   Purpose

·   Audience

·   Author

·   Review process

·   Publication frequency

·   Format

·   Appearance

·   Article length

·   References

·   Advertising

·   Etc.


Review; Special Cases

Now that students understand the different characteristics and features of scholarly and popular periodicals, ask them to look at the journals and magazines on their desks and identify which are scholarly and which are popular.  You may choose to have students work individually or in small groups of two to three.  After several minutes of examination time, go through the room and ask each student (or group of students) if their periodical is scholarly or popular and which clues helped him/her/them reach that decision.  Make sure that at least one student has a mixed content journal (JAMA, for instance) so that students will realize that some journals have both peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed content.


Search Techniques

Ask students how they can search for scholarly articles.  The librarian or a student volunteer can demonstrate these techniques for the class.  Suggestions:

·   Use the library’s high quality subscription databases (particularly disciplinary databases).

·   Some databases offer limiting options.  Look for a way to limit your search to scholarly, peer-reviewed, refereed, or advanced level results.

·   Look for tabbed results in some databases (where peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed results are sectioned off)

·   Examine the reference lists of relevant articles for further leads

Assessment is built in to the lesson; if students do not seem to understand the differences between scholarly and popular journals and articles, the librarian can continue to show them online and print examples, quizzing students on their categorization, until he/she is satisfied that students "have it."

In addition, if the session is delivered as part of an information literacy course, students may be quizzed on their understanding of the nature and characteristics of peer-reviewed sources.
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Presented By: Elizabeth Putnam
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