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Frequently Asked Questions: Understanding Publication Types

Answers to common questions about the library and doing research.

I'm supposed to find "scholarly journals." What are those?

A scholarly journal is a journal that contains scholarly articles, of course!

Scholarly journals, also called peer-reviewed, academic, or refereed journals, are different than popular publications such as magazines and newspapers. There is no single defining characteristic of a scholarly journal. In general, a scholarly journal article often:

  • Reports on original research or contains a new theoretical discussion
  • Is written by a credentialed expert in their field
  • Contains footnotes and/or a bibliography
  • Is written for an audience of students and scholars and uses specialized language
  • Is published by a professional organization
  • Contains little advertising

You can often tell if a journal is scholarly by its title. An example of a scholarly journal is The American Journal of Sports Medicine -- compared to the popular magazine Sports Illustrated.

The library database Ulrichsweb may be used to determine if a periodical is refereed. Many other library databases, such as Academic Search, index scholarly journals and allow you to limit your search results to only scholarly articles. Our main search engine also does this:

See also Popular vs. Scholarly Periodicals Tutorial and What is a Scholarly Article? For more help, use our Finding Articles tutorial, or Ask a Librarian for help in identifying scholarly journals.

My professor said "don't use the Web." Why?

Non-library materials found on the "public Web" (such as through a search engine like Google) are on average of lesser quality than what the library has to offer. Also, a portion of scholarly research is only available in print, and it is important for students to become familiar with library research methods for locating these items.

A growing percentage of the best sources of information are available as online library materials. Many library materials are available online, including catalogs, article databases, and electronic journals. For example, The Boston Globe articles can be retrieved from the LexisNexis database; articles from the journal American Historical Review are available through an e-journal subscription; and many ERIC Documents can be obtained from the online ERIC Database.

When evaluating items, library materials available via the Internet should not be distinguished from library materials available in print or on microform. Library staff may not assist you with requests for printed materials when their identical contents are available online. For example, interlibrary loan orders for journal articles which the library has electronic access to will not be honored.

It is important, however, to distinguish between online library resources and general websites. For help evaluating websites, see How do I know if a web source is reliable?, or use our Using the Web tutorial.

What are "primary sources"?

Primary sources are historical records. This is in contrast to secondary sources, which are retrospective accounts. For example, The Declaration of Independence is a primary source, while a biography of Thomas Jefferson is a secondary source. Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources provides a more exhaustive analysis. See also the video What is a Primary Source and our Primary Sources tutorial.

Ask a Librarian for help identifying and locating primary sources.