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What is a scholarly (or peer-reviewed) journal?

This guide will help you distinguish between scholarly (also known as peer-reviewed) journals, magazines, and trade publications — both print and online — and will help you identify and evaluate these types of sources.

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See What are periodicals?

Scholarly journal

  • Can also be called academic journal or very often peer-reviewed journal.
  • Includes original research articles, written by researchers and experts in a particular academic discipline.

Peer-reviewed journal

  • Peer-reviewed or refereed journals have an editorial board of subject experts who review and evaluate submitted articles before accepting them for publication. A journal may be a scholarly journal but not a peer-reviewed journal. Also known as scholarly journal, or academic journal, or refereed journal.
  • Publishes only original research articles that are subjected to a rigorous evaluation through the peer-review process.
  • The majority of scholarly journals go through the peer-review process, although there are some that are scholarly and non-peer reviewed, such as Journal of financial econometrics.

Peer review (or referee) process

  • An editorial board asks subject experts to review and evaluate submitted articles before accepting them for publication in a scholarly journal.
  • Submissions are evaluated using criteria including the excellence, novelty and significance of the research or ideas.
  • Scholarly journals use this process to protect and maintain the quality of material they publish.
  • Members of the editorial board are listed near the beginning of each journal issue.

Primary and secondary sources

Open access (OA) journals

  • Are journals that are freely available online -- this can include scholarly journals. To learn more, see Open Access explained.

Comparison chart: Scholarly journals, magazines, and trade publications



Scholarly journals




Trade publications


Academics and experts in the discipline or field who are always identified

Professional writers, not necessarily experts; writers are not always identified

Industry experts, professionals, or practitioners who are not always identified

Facilitate scholarly communication between members of a particular academic discipline and/or the public

Provide general information and entertainment to a broad audience


Provide information to members of a particular industry or profession

Content Description

Extensive research articles and analysis written in formal academic styles; some of these types of articles can be considered primary sources

May include scholarly review articles  or news sections which briefly report on new research; these are not research articles 

Plain covers, and generally more charts, graphs, and illustrations than photographs; sometimes advertising

Often have the word "journal" in the title

Information is always specific to a particular academic discipline or field, and usually requires professional or academic knowledge to be fully understood

General interest articles that can include a mixture of fact, anecdote, and/or opinion

Glossy covers, many pictures, extensive use of colour images, and usually much advertising

Often called "popular magazines"

No special vocabulary or knowledge is generally required to understand

Exclusively professional, industry, or trade information

Articles can be fact, anecdote, and/or opinion.

Usually have colourful covers, and quite often advertising specific to the profession, trade, or industry

Often require professional knowledge and vocabulary to be fully understood

Publishers Academic organisations Commercial publishers Usually professional and trade organisations
Citations, footnotes/endnotes, and/or bibliographies Always Usually none Sometimes
Peer reviewed

Almost always

Editorial board members are listed in each journal issue, and/or on the journal's website.

 No  Very rarely
Format Print and electronic Print and electronic Print and electronic
How to access

Paid subscriptions to print or electronic versions

Electronic versions are usually accessed through subscription databases

Sometimes available online free of charge as Open Access journals or through Google Scholar

Paid subscriptions to print or electronic versions

Electronic versions are usually accessed through databases, and sometimes through the magazine's website

Paid subscriptions to print or electronic versions

Electronic versions are usually accessed through business databases, and sometimes through websites

Examples of subscription publications

Canadian Journal of History

The Linguistic Review

Journal of Abnormal Psychology

Journal of Biomechanics


National Geographic

Psychology Today

Sport's Illustrated

Scientific American

Canadian Banker

Food in Canada

Sight and Sound

Examples of Open access publications

Northwest Journal of Linguistics

Current Issues in Education



Finding scholarly journals at SFU

Limiting or filtering your database search

If you are searching for scholarly or peer-reviewed articles, most likely you are using a database to find them. Many (although not all) databases have features that allow you to limit your results to peer-reviewed journal articles only.

If the feature is available, you may see it as you start your search, or it may appear in your search results after you conduct your search. Watch for checkboxes with wording such as, "scholarly journals" or "peer-reviewed."

Caveat: Be cautious when using this feature. Instructors and database vendors are not always using the same definition of what a scholarly journal is. We recommend that you use your judgement, and -- if in doubt -- double-check using another method as well.

For more information on searching journal articles, see How to find journal articles.

Verifying journal types

Existence of editorial board for the journal

Locate the journal's web site and check to see whether it notes the existence of an editorial board.

Tip: Try searching for how to submit to the journal as an author (for instance a "submissions" or "instructions to authors" section). For academic journals, you will find information about the editorial board as the peer review process, if any.

If you are looking at a print copy, check the inside of the front cover, or for a variation of "instructions for authors" at the front or back.

How to critically evaluate sources

Increasingly, academic publications are available on the open web as well as in databases (and of course print).

An essential part of the research process is to be able to evaluate the authority, relevance, and credibility of sources no matter where you find them. See Evaluating sources for the basic questions you should be asking.

Additional information and resources

For more information on finding journal articles, evaluating information, and on the academic research and writing process: 

The Student Learning Commons offers further resources and services on academic writing.