"Is this article from a scholarly source?" Every reference librarian serving on a college campus has heard some variation of this question...and most will cringe in response. This is one task that the Internet has not made easier. Once upon a time, the librarian could flip through the journal and make a judgment call as to the scholarly nature of the source. But nowadays, there is a very good chance the library does not have a print subscription to the article the student clutches. Online, full-text collections have been a boon to researchers and scholars frustrated by interlibrary loan delays, but by removing articles from the journal setting, information about the article itself has become harder to retrieve.

What does "Scholarly" Mean?

One challenge for both students and librarians is to decide what the instructor means by "scholarly." Some instructors want peer-reviewed journals; others say that students can only use articles with lengthy bibliographies. In the sciences, especially, it is common for instructors to limit students to articles that detail original research. Professors will use different terms, too: scholarly, academic, research, professional. Rarely do they explain what they mean. Sometimes they will list a number of sample "acceptable" journal titles, leaving librarians to try and guess what the common thread is that makes these titles acceptable. All too often, students will skip the research step of using an index or database and go straight to the acceptable journals, paging through them.

Teaching Evaluation During BI (Bibliographic Instruction)

Many professors have started asking instruction librarians at our library to teach their students to distinguish between popular and scholarly journals. We have a handout that delineates the differences, but I wanted to add a hands-on exercise. One of the challenges was fitting this new topic into the BI sessions. It would be wonderful to be able to spend a full class period discussing scholarly articles. Like most universities, however, Radford professors bring their classes once or twice a semester to the library and want the librarian to cover everything the students need to know to complete their papers and assignments. With this time limit in mind, the two exercises I have developed take less than 10 minutes each to conduct.

Evaluating Print Articles

As librarians, we know the worth of an article can often be measured by the journal in which it appears. A close examination of the print copy can tell you if the periodical fits certain criteria. Undergraduate students, however, have had little or no exposure to scholarly journals in any form. Since the differences between popular and scholarly periodicals are more evident in the print form, I have found it very useful to have students in my bibliographic instruction sessions. I break my BI class into groups of three and have each group send one person to collect the materials. I give each group one copy of a popular magazine, like Time , a copy of a journal, such as American Journal of Nutrition , and a printed table they will be completing. Once the groups have reassembled, I explain the directions for this exercise. (I have found it is particularly important with freshmen classes to be very explicit.) One person in each group should have the Time magazine. Another person should have the journal. The third person will be the scribe and is responsible for filling out the table. This third person will also be the speaker for the group. The table contains different categories, such as length of articles, presence of footnotes/bibliography, and authors. The goal is to compare and contrast the magazine and journal in each of the categories. I tell them they have five minutes to complete this exercise.

While the students are working, I walk around and answer any questions that arise. I also prod the groups that are behind the others. Most often, their slowness is because interesting articles in Time magazine distract them! Once I've given a one-minute warning, I return to the front of the room and replicate the table on the dry-erase board. When time is up, I go around the room and have the groups tell me what they wrote down. The final "other" category allows me to add any details that the students may have missed.

I have found it helpful to have one student read aloud the first sentence of a magazine article, followed by another student reading aloud the opening sentence of a journal article. This simple step points out how very different the language used by scholarly journals is, as compared to that of popular magazines.

Evaluating Online Articles

Stripped of their surroundings, full-text articles found in online databases, like InfoTrac's Expanded Academic ASAP or MD Consult, are more difficult to evaluate. Clues, such as the amount and type of advertising, the make-up of the editorial board, and the submission guidelines, are not readily available. Students are much more dependent upon their ability to decide an article's worth based on its content.

In my BI classes, I put the students back into their three-person groups. This time, each group is given five articles printed from online databases. Each article is labeled "A," "B," "C," etc. I tell them that they should pretend they are writing a paper for their major and they have found these articles. They must rank the articles from "most reliable" to "least reliable." They should note on the articles themselves why they gave each article its ranking. After approximately three to five minutes, I have each group write its ranking on the dry-erase board.

The discussion following this exercise can be enlightening. Students can usually spot the research--oriented articles right away and rank them as most reliable. For most, the presence of a bibliography is the key factor in deciding an article's importance. Once you bring in more ambiguous articles, such as those printed in Science or Psychology Today , the students may flounder. This is a good time to bring the instructor into the conversation and ask him or her if such periodicals are "acceptable" sources.

Students may fall into the trap of evaluating format over content. Since PDFs, which capture the image of the article as it appears in print, may look more formal, some students may claim that articles in this format are more reliable. Meanwhile, a journal article converted into HTML may be dismissed as "too messy."

This exercise also provides a chance to discuss how different assignments might skew the results of a "reliability" rating. A source that would be good for a historical perspective paper might not be suitable for an argumentative piece.

Resources for Evaluation

In these classes I mention other resources students can use to evaluate a journal's worth. Ulrich's Guide to Periodicals (available in print and online through subscription) can be an invaluable resource for determining whether a journal is refereed. If available, the Journal Citation Reports can tell you how prestigious a journal is in a particular field. Sometimes a journal's homepage will have submission guidelines and editorial board information. Finally, some databases allow limiting searches to more scholarly articles, although results may be mixed. In our experience, InfoTrac's "limit to refereed publications" weeds out newspapers and many magazines, but some professors have been unimpressed with what remains. I impress upon students the need to view these limits as useful but not foolproof. Ultimately, it is their decision whether to include something in their bibliographies.


Deciding whether an article is scholarly or not is a tricky task, even for librarians. For students, it can be bewildering. Too often they have never even seen a scholarly article before, so asking them to identify one out of the blue is futile. When I have a lot of material to cover in a session, I will only do the first exercise with the class. Closely comparing and contrasting news magazines with more scholarly journals opens the students' eyes and gives them a better foundation for making judgments about articles themselves. The second exercise, time permitting, is a good way to reinforce and put into action what they have learned.

Further Reading

Bird, James E. "Teaching From the Journal: An Instruction Method." Research Strategies , 15 (1997), 293-300.

Girden, Ellen R. Evaluating Research Articles: From Start to Finish . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2001.

How to Tell a Professional/Scholarly Journal From a Popular Magazine [online]. Radford: Radford University, McConnell Library, 1999 [cited March 11, 2003]. Available on the World Wide Web: ( ).

Candice Benjes-Small is Reference/Instruction Librarian, McConnell Library, Radford University.