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Scholarly (peer-reviewed), Popular, or Neither?

"Scholarly" and "peer-reviewed" are terms often used synonymously when describing print and Web resources of an academic nature. They include:

  • Articles published in an academic journal, such as Oregon Historical Quarterly. Academic publications are usually recognizable by the dry nature of their titles and presentation, though there are exceptions to this rule. A near-universal feature of peer-reviewed articles is an abstract at the beginning and/or in the catalog record, which consists of a paragraph summarizing the author's methods, arguments, findings, etc.
  • Conference papers, book reviews, and other materials appearing in academic journals.
  • Most non-fiction books written by scholars or other experts, even though these may not be subject to the same peer-review process as articles.
  • Theses and dissertations
  • Most reference materials, such as encyclopedias.

The term "popular" is used to refer to non-scholarly sources intended for a mass audience; it does not mean well-liked or respected, as it would in reference to a person or group. Popular sources are not inherently inferior to scholarly sources, merely different in terms of the research, editorial process, and intent behind them. Popular sources include:

  • Magazines, whether in print or online. This would apply equally to Vogue and The New Yorker.
  • Newspapers, whether in print or online. This would apply equally to The National Enquirer and The New York Times. Again, this is because the intended audience, not quality or reputation, is the defining factor.
  • Wikipedia
  • Sites such as Psychology Today and WedMD that feature the work of experts, but are geared toward a general, non-specialist audience. The articles that appear on such sites are also not subject to a peer-review process as such.
  • Works of fiction (though these may well come up in an academic context; an example would be a thesis that analyzes gender roles in a film or classic novel)
  • Film documentaries

Some sources are neither scholarly nor popular, and may appear in either context. These include:

  • Government reports and documents, such as congressional proceedings.
  • Other primary sources, such as diaries, letters, speeches, memoirs, audio recordings, parish registries, census data, legal materials, etc.
  • Trade journals. These occupy a dubious niche, as they are written by experts, usually for an expert audience, but are not subject to a peer-review process. They concern trends and developments in a specific field or industry, such as brewing or mechanics.

What is an academic journal?

The following are defining characteristics of academic journals:

  • A title reflecting a particular theme, subject, topic, concern, or issue. By contrast to most well-known popular resources, such as newspapers and news magazines, an academic journal is usually fairly narrow in its focus. A medical journal, for example, could be solely concerned with the treatment of one particular disease, such as diabetes. A history journal may focus on one geographic region and/or historical period.
  • A peer-review process. This is essentially quality control for scholarship. The actual mechanics of the process may vary somewhat by publication or discipline, but it boils down to the review of articles by experts in the field to which the article belongs. At the PhD level, these experts often have detailed knowledge of the existing body of scholarship in their field, meaning that they are in a position to judge whether a submission would bring new ideas or information to the field and if the research methods employed are sound.
  • An editorial board or team, also usually composed of field experts. The roles of different types of editors also vary by publication, but almost always there is a top editor or co-editor who is the first to see submissions and the final arbiter of the publication process.
  • A format that includes strict adherence to one citation style, such as APA or Chicago/Turabian.
  • An annual, biannual, or quarterly publication cycle, sometimes interspersed with special issues. Most journals have a numbering scheme that reflects this cycle.

Institutions that subscribe to academic journals typically have the issues bound and shelved at the end of each publication cycle. Many journals have moved to a primarily or solely digital platform, however, and a growing number use an open-access model, meaning that they do not charge subscription or download fees, and their content is discoverable on the open Web. Some such journals also do not adhere to a traditional publication cycle, instead publishing submissions on a continuous or rolling basis. Though the reputability of open-access journals may vary by field, they have become an accepted feature of the academic landscape.

What is peer review?


This diagram illustrates a slightly different version of the peer-review process, but the fundamentals are the same.

Peer review is a lengthy process that ensures what a journal publishes is featuring new ideas or discoveries, coming from a reliable source, and is a good fit for the intended audience of the journal. Along with ensuring the content is accurate and relevant, the peer review process also checks that the author's writing is clear and there are no spelling or grammatical errors and the format is correct.

For more information on the peer review process and how a journal publishes new articles, check out

How does the peer review process work?

The following reflects the peer-review process used by the International Journal of Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities:

  1. The editor receives a submission and gives it an initial read-through. If the format, writing quality, and subject matter seem appropriate, she sends the submission (with the author's name redacted) to 2-3 reviewers with relevant expertise.
  2. The reviewers read the submission and recommend that it be accepted, accepted with revisions, or rejected.
  3. The editor, taking the reviewers' recommendations into consideration, reaches a decision on the submission.
  4. If the editor decides to accept the submission "with revisions," which is a typical outcome for submissions that are not rejected outright, she sends the submission back to the author with the reviewers' commentary (the reviewers' names are hidden - this is known as "double-blind" review).
  5. The author incorporates the reviewers' commentary into a revised version of the submission. If he chooses not to act on one or more pieces of commentary, he explains why in a note to the editor.
  6. The editor does a final copyedit for grammatical and stylistic issues. If she or the author has not done so already, she sets the submission in the format or template used by the journal for publication purposes. She sends the copyedited version back to the author for a final review. This version of the submission is sometimes known as a galley proof, or final form, and represents the author's last opportunity to make changes./li>
  7. The editor publishes the submission in the current (in the rolling publication model) or upcoming (in the traditional model) issue of the journal.