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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

  • 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 sources

  • Provide firsthand information in the original words of the creator or eye witness.
  • Include creative works, for example: poetry, drama, novels, music, art, films.
  • Include original documents, for example: interviews, diaries, speeches, letters, minutes, film footage, oral histoires, manuscripts.
  • Include reports of original research and ideas, for example: statistical data, case studies, conference papers, technical reports and research papers published in scholarly journals.
  • For more information, see Primary vs. Secondary Sources in Humanities and in Sciences, from the BMCC Library.

Secondary sources

  • Provide information reviewing, evaluating, analyzing or interpreting primary sources.
  • Include criticism and interpretation of creative works.
  • Include interpretations of original documents, for example: biographies, historical analyses, textbooks and encyclopedia articles.
  • Include summaries and reviews of scholarly findings, for example review articles, textbooks, encyclopedia articles and both scholarly journal and popular magazine articles.

Review articles

  • Are secondary sources that report and summarize other authors' works on a given subject.
  • Are a useful overview tool; they provide a summary of recent research on a particular subject.
  • Review articles are not considered research articles.

Research articles

  • Are articles describing new research or ideas.
  • Are written in a formal manner that includes background information, methods used, results/interpretation and significance.

Open access (OA) journals

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



 Another way of determining what kind of serial publication you are using is Verifying Journal types with Ulrich's Periodicals Directory.

Finding scholarly journals at SFU

For many assignments, you may be asked to use only articles from scholarly journals, and you will usually use a database to find these articles. One strategy is to use a database feature that allows you to limit your results to peer-reviewed journal articles only. This feature is available in some databases, but not all. The following screen images show examples of four common databases that allow you to limit search results to peer-reviewed articles. The red arrows point to the limiter checkboxes/tabs:

Academic Search Premier:

Academic Search Premier

 CBCA Complete:

Humanities & Social Sciences Index:


Philosopher's Index:

Note: You must first run a search before you can narrow your results to peer-reviewed journals.

Philosopher's Index


Please see our How to find Journal Articles guide for more information on conducting journal article research.

Verifying journal types

Ulrich's Periodicals Directory

Use Ulrich's Periodicals Directory, a database that contains information on over 240,000 journals, magazines, and newspapers world-wide.

Example 1:

  1. Connect to Ulrich's Periodicals Directory
  2. In the quick search box, select Title (exact) and enter: Canadian Journal of History

In the results list, a refereed icon (see the arrow in the screen image below) indicates that a publication is peer-reviewed.


  1.  Click on the journal title to get the detailed record with more information:
  • A - Publishing body is an academic organisation
  • B - The document type is a Journal; Academic/Scholarly
  • C - Once again, it is indicated that the journal is refereed.  


Example 2:

In the next screen image, you can see the difference between this scholarly journal and a popular magazine, Maclean's

  • A - It is published by a major commercial publisher
  • B - The document type is Magazine; consumer
  • C - The subject area is General Interest Periodicals



 Example 3

Now look at the Ulrich's record for the trade magazine Food in Canada:

  • A - Document type is Magazine; Trade
  • B - Special Features include information relevant for an industry such as patents and trade literature. 


Existence of editorial board for the journal

Locate the journal's web site and check to see whether the existence of an editorial board is noted on the site.

If there is a print copy of the journal issue, look to see if the journal has an editorial board. This can be in one of several places, such as the inside of the front cover, or in the Instructions for Authors at the back.

How to critically evaluate sources

Learning how to quickly determine the relevance and authority of a given resource for your research is one of the the core skills of the research process, regardless of where you are searching. Use the criteria below to critically evaluate each source you are considering using (especially popular sources).

  • Timeliness/Currency
    • The information should not be too old, as it might have been superseded by other research
  • Authority
    • Authors and their credentials should be clearly identified
    • Authors should have an educational background with past writings and/or experience in the subject area
    • In general, government, academic and non-profit web sites are more reliable than personal or commercial web sites
  • Accuracy and completeness
    • Information should appear to be valid and well researched
    • Authors should indicate their research methods and provide supportive evidence for their conclusions
    • Should not include obvious errors or omissions
    • Should have a bibliography
  • Objectivity
    • Should be informing you, not trying to persuade you of something or sell you something
    • Information should be fact not opinion (note: skilled writers can make their opinions seem like facts)
  • Quality control
    • Should not have obvious errors such as poor spelling or poor grammar (unlikely that a reliable source would include such errors)
  • Coherent organization
    • Should be logically organized
    • Main points should be clearly presented
    • Author's argument should not be repetitive or circular
  • Reasonableness
    • Given what you already know about the subject, it should seem reasonable
    • Should not contradict information you have found elsewhere; if it does check other sources to determine which information is correct

Additional information and resources

See the following SFU guides for more information on periodicals, evaluating information, and on the academic research and writing process: 

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