College instructors often require that students include only scholarly articles in the bibliographies of their research papers. But how can a student tell the difference between a scholarly publication and a popular one that's written for a general audience?

The criteria below will help you recognize a scholarly or research article. Not every one of these criteria will be found in every article, but when you can answer yes to many of the following questions, you can be quite confident that you've found the kind of literature your instructor wants you to use.

Looking at the Citation

These criteria are most important when you are looking at a citation for an article in an index, a database, or a bibliography:

  • Does the periodical title depict a very specific subject area?

  • Does the article have a complex and lengthy title?

  • Are the authors' names listed along with their degrees, titles, or other credentials and/or the names of the institutions with which they are affiliated (particularly colleges or universities)?

  • Was the article cited in a subject-specific index or database (e.g., Education Index, Medline, Sociological Abstracts)?

  • Does the periodical title contain the words Journal, Studies, Research, or Review?

  • Is the article long -- more than 5 pages?


Looking at the Article On-Line (all of the above, plus:)

These criteria will be most helpful when you're looking at a full-text article on-line:

  • Does the article use technical language and specialized vocabulary? Does it assume some subject knowledge on the part of the reader? Is it complex &not easily comprehended by a general reader?

  • Does the article include footnotes, a bibliography, or list of references?

  • Is the text accompanied by tables &charts, but not many photos or drawings? (unless the field is visually-oriented, such as art, design, or architecture)

  • Does the article report on the results of research or experiments?

  • Does the article include a review of the literature, i.e., a summary of other articles written on the topic?

  • Does an abstract or summary of the article appear before the article itself begins?


Looking at the Actual Article in a Periodical (all of the above, plus:)

These criteria can be used when you have the actual publication in hand:

  • Is the periodical published or sponsored by a scholarly society or organization? (e.g., American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association)

  • Does the publication list an editorial board near the front of each issue?

  • Does the publication have a serious look, with few design or graphic elements? Does it have a limited number of color photographs or illustrations?

  • Does the periodical contain almost no advertising? Are the ads for journals, professional organizations or other non-commercial products?

  • Is the periodical published monthly or less frequently?



There are also a few characteristics that almost always indicate that the article or periodical you have is NOT scholarly, but is a general-interest publication. Answering yes to many of the following questions should raise a red flag in your evaluation.

Are authors' names missing?

Are there very few, very brief, or no bibliographies?

Are there lots of full-color ads for popular commercial products?

Is the language very easy to understand?

Is the periodical published frequently:daily or weekly?

Does the periodical contain lots of graphics, photos, &color?

Would the article appeal to a broad range of people?

Can the periodical be purchased at newsstands or stores?


THE GRAY AREAS (there always are some!)

As mentioned above, not every scholarly criterion will be present in every scholarly article. A popular article may meet a few of the scholarly criteria. Occasionally, a scholarly article will be published in a popular magazine. In addition, for some topics or disciplines, popular magazines such as Time or Sports Illustrated may be appropriate. If you are uncertain about whether an article is acceptable to your instructor or not, the best approach is to ask!


See Also: What exactly is a scholarly journal?:Resources from Educator's Reference Desk (formerly AskERIC)