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Popular Literature vs. Scholarly Peer-Reviewed Literature: What's the Difference?


Popular Literature

Popular literature is written by journalists, who are employed by the magazine for which they write. Journalists cover news and current events in a field, write profiles of people, places, or events, and express political opinions. Some examples of popular literature are:

  • The New York Times
  • Newsweek
  • National Geographic
  • Psychology Today
  • Natural History
  • The Nation
  • New Republic
  • Science News

Scholarly Literature

Scholarly literature is written by researchers who are experts in their field. People who write for academic journals are employed by colleges, universities, or other institutions of education or research. They submit articles to the editors of the journals, who decide whether or not to publish the article. The most prestigious academic journals subject articles to the peer-review process. This means that, before an article is accepted for publication, it is reviewed by several experts in the field, who suggest possible changes, and recommend to the editor of the journal whether or not to publish the article. Some examples of academic journals are:

  • Journal of American History
  • Psychological Review
  • Nature
  • Annals of the National Academy of Science
  • Acta Archaeologia
  • James Joyce Quarterly
  • Journal of the American Musicological Society

Trade and Professional Literature

Trade and professional literature resembles scholarly literature in that it is written by people working in the field. However, the articles in trade and professional journals cover news in the field, brief reports on research, and opinions about trends and events. Some examples of trade and professional journals are:

  • American Libraries
  • AdWeek
  • Drug Store News
  • Anthropology Newsletter
  • Back Stage Magazine

Journal Types: A Comparative Chart

  POPULAR SCHOLARLY PROFESSIONAL
Purpose To inform and entertain the general reader To communicate research and scholarly ideas To apply information; to provide professional support
Audience General public Other scholars, students Practitioners in the field, professionals
Coverage Broad variety of public interest topics, cross disciplinary Very narrow and specific subjects Information relevant to field and members of a group
Publisher Commercial Professional associations; academic institutions; and many commercial publishers Professional, occupational, or trade group
Writers Employees of the publication, freelancers (including journalists and scholars) Scholars, researchers, experts, usually listed with their institutional affiliation Members of the profession, journalists, researchers, scholars
Characteristics
  • Little technical language or jargon
  • Few or no cited references
  • Absence of bibliographies
  • General summaries of background information
  • Contain numerous advertisements
  • Articles are usually brief; between 1-7 pages
  • Little or no background information given
  • Technical language and discipline- specific jargon
  • PEER REVIEW, editorial board
  • Bibliographies included
  • Procedures and materials often described in detail
  • Articles are longer, often over 5 pages
  • Application of new technology
  • Employment issues
  • Practitioners viewpoint
  • Technical language used
  • Interpretation of research trends and issues
  • Articles are usually brief; between 1-7 pages
  • Contain advertisements
Frequency Frequent, on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis Less frequent, on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis Frequent, on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis
Examples Time, US News and World Report, Modern Healthcare Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal


How Can You Tell?

The comparative chart above has some criteria that you can use to make an educated guess about the type of journal. Also, consider the following:

  1. Check the description of the index you are using. The publisher of the index may include information on the types of periodicals indexed. Hint: Most of the material that appears in Humanities Abstracts is of a scholarly nature. Material indexed in Academic Search Premier includes both popular and scholarly literature.
  2. If possible, examine the periodical. At the beginning of the magazine/journal you will find information about the publication. Academic journals usually include information for contributors about the process of submitting articles for publication.
  3. Consult the Ulrich's Periodicals Directory. If you are off campus this will require that you login to the Libraries Website with your NetID first.

A Word of Caution

Not everything published in scholarly journals is appropriate to use as a resource for research. Book reviews, editorial (opinion) pieces, short news items etc. do not count as "scholarly articles". If you are unsure about using the information you've found, be sure to check with a librarian or your professor.