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Scholarly vs. Popular

It does not matter how many books you may have, but whether they are good or not.

– Lucius Annaeus SENECA (3 B.C.-65 A.D.)

How to Decide if It’s Good

Understanding the nature of information sources will help you determine if your resource is valuable to your project or not. This is not to say that you should only consider one type of publication, but rather that you should critically examine each resource in terms of what value it contributes to your project. And while all types of sources may be beneficial to your research, most academic work favors scholarly sources over popular ones.

When researching a topic, the trick is to find a balance between the types of material and know how to use each resource appropriately. Sometimes there may be little scholarly material on a topic, so if you use newspapers and popular magazines it’s helpful to point out that the information reflects a “commonly accepted position” but is “difficult to verify or refute.”

NOTE: When evaluating research papers, instructors look for evidence of scholarship. Have you:

  • carried out a review of the literature
  • engaged in a thoughtful analysis of the issues
  • matched conclusions with supporting documentation
  • selected appropriate materials for inclusion in the bibliography

Your work may be judged non-scholarly if you base your entire paper on opinion pieces such as might be found in a newspaper or popular magazine.

Definitions

Periodicals are commonly divided into four categories: popular magazines, scholarly/professional journals, trade publications, and tabloids. It’s relatively simple to identify the later two. But what’s the difference between scholarly (or academic or expert) and non-scholarly (or popular) sources?

Scholarly journals generally have a sober, serious look, often with graphs and charts but few glossy pages or pictures and are frequently published by a specific professional organization. Experts in that field who cite their sources in the form of footnotes or bibliographies write the articles. Since the language is that of the discipline covered, it is assumed that readers have some scholarly understanding on the subject. Overall, the main purpose of a scholarly journal is to disseminate knowledge worldwide to academic communities.

Non-scholarly work is often work attractive in appearance with many illustrations. It is based on personal opinion, usually with no supporting documentation (such as a literate review or a bibliography). The main purpose of such periodicals is to provide information, in a general manner, to a broad audience. There are different levels of non-scholarly material, general interest, popular and sensational, which can make it difficult at times to identify it as popular rather than scholarly.

NOTE: Although there is a clear preference for scholarly material in academic research, there is a role for popular material in that it often reflects contemporary, social thought.

What if I’m Not Sure?

  • Check out the criteria on the The Vodka Ad Test web page.
  • Also see "I found it on the Web" — useful guidelines for evaluating sources obtained via the computer.
  • Check in Magazines for Libraries (Tutt Ref PN4832.K2). It is an annotated listing of 6,000+ periodicals. Key information includes notes about the level of audience, descriptions of the scope, and political slant.
  • Many online journal databases will let you limit to scholarly journals as part of the search strategy.
  • Talk with your professor or a librarian about the status of a periodical or book.

This page is part of FYE Central, brief guides to Tutt Library and college research.

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