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Journal Finder: About Periodicals

About Formats

Perhaps the most confusing thing about selecting materials for your research is understanding the difference between types of serials, or periodicals. Periodicals are distinguished as being either scholarly journals or magazines. Usually your professors will require that your sources be peer-reviewed, or scholarly journals. Find out how to tell the difference below.

What are Periodicals?

What are Periodicals?

A PERIODICAL is any publication published on a regular basis (e.g., daily, monthly, quarterly, semi-annually). The generic name for journals, magazines and newspapers is "periodical." Periodicals contain ARTICLES that can be used for research. Here are some examples:

New York Times, a newspaper published daily
Time, a magazine published weekly
Black Scholar, a journal published quarterly

How should periodicals fit into my research strategy?

Periodicals often provide information that is

To the point;

Periodicals are timely because they are published more often than books, for example. Newspapers are puiblished daily or weekly, magazines weekly or monthly; journals monthly or quarterly. As a result, the information in periodicals is more up-to-date.

Periodicals are to the point because periodical articles are briefer than books. The authors of periodical articles know that they have less room to work with, so they get to the point directly. The fact that a typical newspaper contains many short articles, while a journal contains a few longer articles is another aspect of the focus you will find in periodicals.

Periodicals are also authoritative in a way that distinguishes them from books. Newspaper articles are primary sources; that means they are based on first-person accounts and experiences--a newspaper reporter goes directly to these sources. Journal articles are written by experts, and the articles are also often screened by a "jury" of experts before they are publshed. Magazine articles may be less authoritative, since they are often written for a popular audience by non-experts.

Adapted with permission courtesy of:
Reference Department;
Instruction, Research, and Information Services (IRIS);
Cornell University Library
Ithaca, NY, USA

Distinguishing Scholarly Journals from Other Periodicals

Journals, magazines, and newspapers are important sources for up-to-date information in all disciplines. It is often difficult to distinguish between the various levels of scholarship found in a periodicals collection. In this guide we have divided the criteria for periodical literature into four categories: Scholarly, Substantive News or General Interest, Popular, and Sensational.

Webster'sThird International Dictionary defines scholarly as:

1) concerned with academic study, especially research,

2) exhibiting the methods and attitudes of a scholar, and

3) having the manner and appearance of a scholar.

Substantive is defined as having a solid base, being substantial.

Popular means fit for, or reflecting the taste and intelligence of, the people at large.

Sensational is defined as arousing or intending to arouse strong curiosity, interest or reaction.

Keeping these definitions in mind, and realizing that none of the lines drawn between types of journals can ever be totally clear cut, the general criteria are as follows.


Scholarly journals generally have a sober, serious look. They often contain many graphs and charts but few glossy pages or exciting pictures.

Scholarly journals always cite their sources in the form of footnotes or bibliographies.

Articles are written by a scholar in the field or by someone who has done research in the field.

The language of scholarly journals is that of the discipline covered. It assumes some scholarly background on the part of the reader.

The main purpose of a scholarly journal is to report on original research or experimentation in order to make such information available to the rest of the scholarly world.

Many scholarly journals, though by no means all, are published by a specific professional organization.


JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association
Journal of Black Studies
Journal of Marriage and the Family
Modern Fiction Studies
Shakespeare Quarterly


These periodicals may be quite attractive in appearance, although some are in newspaper format. Articles are often heavily illustrated, generally with photographs.

News and general interest periodicals sometimes cite sources, though more often do not.

Articles may be written by a member of the editorial staff, a scholar or a free lance writer.

The language of these publications is geared to any educated audience. There is no specialty assumed, only interest and a certain level of intelligence.

They are generally published by commercial enterprises or individuals, although some emanate from specific professional organizations.

The main purpose of periodicals in this category is to provide information, in a general manner, to a broad audience of concerned citizens.


Christian Science Monitor
National Geographic
El Chicano
Scientific American
Vital Speeches of the Day


Popular periodicals come in many formats, although often somewhat slick and attractive in appearance with lots of graphics (photographs, drawings, etc.).

These publications rarely, if ever, cite sources. Information published in such journals is often second or third hand and the original source is sometimes obscure.

Articles are usually very short, written in simple language and are designed to meet a minimal education level. There is generally little depth to the content of these articles.

The main purpose of popular periodicals is to entertain the reader, to sell products (their own or their advertisers), and/or to promote a viewpoint.


Reader's Digest
People en Espanol
Sports Illustrated


Sensational periodicals come in a variety of styles, but often use a newspaper format.
Their language is elementary and occasionally inflammatory or sensational.
They assume a certain gullibility in their audience.
The main purpose of sensational magazines seems to be to arouse curiosity and to cater to popular superstitions. They often do so with flashy headlines designed to astonish (e.g. Half-man Half-woman Makes Self Pregnant).


National Examiner
Weekly World News

Adapted with permission courtesy of:
Reference Department;
Instruction, Research, and Information Services (IRIS);
Cornell University Library
Ithaca, NY, USA

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