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New Students: Types of Sources

Popular v Scholarly v Peer Reviewed Articles

What's the difference between a popular article and a scholarly one?  And I keep seeing the terms "scholarly" and "peer-reviewed."  Do they mean the same thing?


A popular article is one that is found in a magazine.  It has the following characteristics:

  • It's written by journalists or professional writers for a general audience
  • It uses language easily understood by general readers
  • If it contains research, it is typically reported second-hand.
  • It rarely gives full citations for sources
  • It tends to be shorter than journal articles.
  • It is usually glossy and pretty and is published daily, weekly, or monthly.

Examples of Popular Magazines:


Examples of popular magazines include Prevention, Healthy Aging, Time, or Health.


A scholarly article is found in a journal and has the following characteristics:

  • They are written by experts in the field and typically list their credentials
  • The intended audience is  faculty, researchers, or scholars (chemists, historians, doctors, educators, etc.)
  • They use scholarly or technical language.
  • They tend to be longer articles about research and often report the results of original research.
  • They include full citations for their sources.
  • The look of the journal is not intended to attract attention and it is usually published monthly or quarterly (although there are exceptions, like the New England Journal of Medicine.)

Examples of Scholarly Journals:


Examples of journals include JAMA Neurology, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of Psychology


Note:  There are some hybrids out there that blur the lines between magazines and scholarly journals.  Scientific American and Atlantic Monthly, for example,  do not fit well into either category.


The instructor for my course has specified that I use peer-reviewed articles.  Does that mean a scholarly article?

Peer reviewed articles are a subset of scholarly articles.Yes, but peer-reviewed articles are a special subset of scholarly articles.  Peer review is an editorial process many scholarly journals use to ensure that the articles published in journals are high-quality scholarship.  These articles (also called refereed articles) are reviewed by an editor and other specialists before being accepted for publication.

Here's a tip for you.You can filter search results in the CORE Library by "peer-reviewed."   This ensures that every article in a search has gone through this special review process.


The instructor has not specified what kinds of information I should use.  What do I do?

Both popular and scholarly articles can be good sources for your work.  When selecting information, think about how you intend to use the information.

  • Do you want background on a topic that is new to you?  ---> Use magazines.
  • Do you want to explore popular opinion? ---> Use magazines.
  • Are you interested in finding information that is written for the patient, as opposed to the doctor? ---> Use magazines.
  • Do you need research to support a claim? ---> Use journals.
  • Did your instructor say to cite scholarly resources?  --- Use journals.
  • Are you looking for the most current or trending ideas on a topic of scholarly interest? ---> Use journals.

Probably the best thing to do is ask your instructor what s/he requires for the assignment.

Resource Guide: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

This guide explains different research source types (primary, secondary and tertiary) and presents CORE and Internet resources exemplifying each. Often, links to illustrations and examples supportive of learning are provided.

 OPTIONWatch a video summary HERE.

 Source:  The David L. Rice Library
 The University of Southern Indiana

In this guide, topic sections, each with its own tab above, are as follows:

IMPORTANT NOTE: What is considered a primary, secondary or tertiary source can vary, depending on the discipline. Examples and further explanation follow.


To those studying history:

PRIMARY SOURCE: Ben Franklin's letters
SECONDARY SOURCE: A biography of Ben Franklin
TERTIARY SOURCE: A short encyclopedia of America's founding fathers with coverage of Ben Franklin

Franklin wrote in his diary over 200 years ago. It's an original document dating from Franklin's time. It's a PRIMARY source. The biography of Franklin was written two centuries later. It's a SECONDARY source, possibly based in part on primary sources. The short encyclopedia distills any number of primary and secondary sources into a short survey article on Franklin, making it a TERTIARY source.

To those studying art:

PRIMARY SOURCE:  A painting by Renoir
SECONDARY SOURCE:  A book analyzing Renoir's art
TERTIARY SOURCE:  An art encyclopedia containing an article on Renoir

The painting is an original work, done by Renoir in his time, making it a PRIMARY source. Written many years later, the contemporary book commenting on Renoir's art is a SECONDARY source. The art encyclopedia has many articles, One article, which draws from many sources, is about Renoir. This encyclopedia is a TERTIARY source.