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Newspapers and Their Use


University assignments often require students to find and use a variety of sources of information including books and articles from "scholarly journals" or "academic periodicals". Sometimes professors will ask students to use only "research" articles, "peer reviewed" articles, or "refereed" articles.

Formally, a periodical is a "serial ['a publication issued in successive parts, usually at regular intervals, and continued indefinitely'] with a distinctive title" issued at regular intervals, more often than once per year.

Periodicals usually have volume and issue numbers and appear daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and so on.

Usually, periodicals fall into the category of secondary sources, with the contents offering an interpretation and analysis of events by the author or authors and undergoing an editing and review process which introduces its own form of secondary bias.

Periodical content may include, but is not limited to:

Original research: commentaries and brief communications; research articles
Didactic: "how we did it good where I work"
Review articles: historical review / summary; literature review; book (or other document/media) review
Case histories or case studies
Letters to the editor
Conference papers
Working papers

In common use, periodical literature is often subdivided in a variety of ways. Probably the most frequent subdivision is into journal, magazine, or newspaper. Often, students erroneously equate the term "journal" with academic and scholarly material and the term "magazine" or newspaper with non-academic and non-scholarly material.

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Newspapers, Magazines, and Journals

Some disciplines may become more creative in their use of terms to describe the familiar periodical. Terms such as "popular magazines" are sometimes used, often accompanied by the warning that they are unacceptable resources for undergraduate assignments. These terms are seldom well-defined except in the negative, such as: popular magazines are not scholarly / academic resources. However, used appropriately, popular magazines (and newspapers and other news sources) can provide useful leads to more scholarly material by reporting on new surveys, studies and research and giving the reader enough information to delve deeper.

A periodical may be deemed to be a journal, a magazine, or a newspaper, depending upon its form and content.

Newspapers are usually printed on relatively flimsy, cheap paper (usually called newsprint), suited to their intended purpose: to convey disposable, current information, be read and discarded. Newspapers are relatively large in overall size and usually are folded in half or in quarters to make them more convenient to display for sale, to carry and to read. Many tabloid newspapers in physical form are about 11.5 inches by 15.5 inches; their stories are often speculative and sensational and seldom have a hard news focus. Many daily North American newspapers in physical form are about 12 inches by 22 inches.

Many magazines appear with "glossy" (shiny and smooth) covers and use bright, white paper, or may appear in newsprint. They may be small or large in size, although most North American magazines in physical form are about 8.5 inches by 11 inches and they may be thick or thin, although most North American magazines are flexible enough to be rolled.

There is frequently little difference between magazines and journals in terms of form. However, they differ dramatically in terms of content.

The language in magazine articles is easier to understand. The topics are more general and more popular. The purpose of an article in a magazine is to describe an event, situation, subject, place, or person. Magazine articles are designed to entertain, persuade, or inform the reader. Usually, articles in magazines do not have references or bibliographies to tell the reader where the content of the article came from. Many articles in magazines will be written in the first-person, that is, they will tell a personal story and the author will refer to herself / himself as "I". Some articles in magazines will not have an author.

Some magazines will contain mostly factual articles; some magazines will contain mostly fictional or speculative articles; some magazine will contain articles which reflect only personal opinions. Many magazines have a mix of article types.

Articles in magazines include:

news articles, similar in content to newspaper articles but written in a different style;

regular "columns" about topics of wide interest such as: health, money, family relationships, sex, home decorating, child care, fashion;

articles which are really advertisements and try to sell a product or service to the reader; and

feature articles which may be several pages long and are often on topics that readers relate to on an emotional level (they may make readers feel sad, happy, angry ...)

Journals may be categorized as "practitioner" (sometimes called "trade" or "professional"), a term which may be poorly defined and indiscriminately used within the discipline or undefined and unused by a number of standard library resources (such as Ulrich's Periodicals Directory). That being the case, determining which titles are "practitioner journals" may be a matter of judgment.

Practitioner journals are intended for: generalists; administrators and executives; and non-academics. Their content is: practical; useful; and relevant to real-life situations. Articles are usually improvement, solution and success oriented, and at first glance, may appear widely applicable to the field. The research methodology presented within the articles of practitioner journals is less important perhaps than readability of the material. The content may, therefore, be of limited utility for either the practitioner (in terms of validity) or the academic.

Academic / scholarly journals are directed toward specialists in narrow fields of interest. Their content is often theoretical, philosophical, research based, and knowledge oriented. Data, information, discussion, analysis, and results are cautiously presented and narrowly applicable.

The quality of the research methodology may relate to the type of periodical in which the article appears. In academic circles, great weight is placed on the designation of a journal as peer reviewed or refereed.

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Peer Review

Peer reviewed, refereed, and juried or non-juried are terms which academics and other researchers often use interchangeably. Usually, they are used to characterize periodical titles which contain articles that have been vetted or reviewed by other knowledgeable people in the same or a similar field to ensure the quality of the contents. Generally, juried titles are those which follow a formal process of peer review or refereeing and non-juried titles are those which follow a process similar to peer review where, for instance, a board of editors knowledgeable in the field screens submissions.

The point of peer review is to judge the validity of the methods by which research was conducted and presented. It is generally not designed to ensure the quality of the arguments made or the conclusions reached (other than in the way that they related to the validity of the methods by which research was conducted and presented). Please see the Peer Review Process for more detailed information.

Students asked to find "research" articles, "peer reviewed" articles, or "refereed" articles or "articles from peer reviewed journals", are really being asked to use valid sources -- sources which report data produced using acceptable research methods.

Determining the status of a periodical may mean relying on a third party such as Ulrich's Periodicals Directory or the vendor of a bibliographic database. Ulrich's relates the form (physical appearance) of the item or the nature of the issuer to the publication type: academic / scholarly; trade; consumer; newsletter; newspaper; bulletin; proceedings; directories; government publications. The phrase "Refereed Serial" is used to connote peer reviewed titles, however, the designation is based on self-identification by the publisher of the title. In other words, if the publisher calls the title peer reviewed, Ulrich's accepts that. Users should note that there are probably titles within Ulrich's which are in fact peer reviewed but may not carry the phrase "Refereed Serial". Some bibliographic databases offer the option of selecting "peer reviewed" or "refereed" as a search limit, but again, many rely on self-identification by the publisher.

The New York Times is a newspaper. It does not contain scholarly, academic information, though it may summarize or refer to such information.

National Geographic, Far Eastern Economic Review, Old House Journal and Ladies Home Journal are magazines. They do not contain scholarly, academic information, though they may summarize or refer to such information.

Psychology Today is a magazine even though it contains articles written by academics and professionals. It is not refereed.

Harvard Business Review is a magazine even though it publishes case studies and research. It is not refereed.

The Journal of Global History and Social History are academic, scholarly journals but are not refereed.

College & Research Libraries and the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology are journals. Both these journals are refereed.

The American Journal of Nursing is sometimes called a refereed magazine. It looks like a magazine. It is "glossy", has regular news sections and columns, and advertisements. However, it also has articles which are peer reviewed.

It is possible for a journal to be academic and scholarly but not peer reviewed and it is possible for a trade publication to be peer reviewed.

Sub-categories, such as blind peer review (where the reviewers do not know the identity of the authors of the articles under review), double-blind peer review (where neither the identity of the reviewers nor the authors are known to each other), editorial peer review and expert peer review also exist. Public peer review or transparent peer review often implies that the authors and reviewers are known to each other. Finding a solid definition of these terms as they are applied to individual periodicals is not always an easy task.

It is not uncommon for students, and others, to assume that if a periodical is peer reviewed then all content within it is peer reviewed. However, that is not the case; even if the periodical title is peer reviewed, some portion of the content may not be (for instance, editorials, letters, some articles, etc.).

Occasionally, the item under consideration may indicate its status. For instance, the authors may acknowledge or refer to the "referees' insightful comments". Sometimes the authors may know who the referees are and even name "the following referees who participated in the review process" in the paper. Other times they may simply thank "three anonymous referees". In these cases, the student may assume the item went through a review process. Sometimes the publication will offer the reader access to the review process and it is possible to read both the suggested changes and observe where and how the initial article changed before being published.

However, if the item does not provide such helpful information, life becomes a little more complicated. Having determined that the periodical title is peer reviewed, the reader should look for particular characteristics in the item.

First, if the item is designated as an editorial, news, column, commentary, or opinion piece, chances are it is not peer reviewed. Most letters (although there may be exceptions especially in scientific journals) are not peer reviewed.

Second, if the item is called an article, see if it is further distinguished in the table of contents (for instance, is it called a "Research Article" or "Research Paper"?). If the item is an overview of an upcoming conference on your topic, chances are the item (even if it is called an article) was not peer reviewed. If the item is a basic book review, chances are the item (even if it is called an article) was not peer reviewed.

Third, look at the item itself. Does it have an abstract and references? Is there a section dealing with research methodology? ... Does it discuss the design of the research? Does it talk about statistical significance? ... p-values? ... measurement tools? Does it present actual survey questions or other instruments?

Fourth, does the item enhance current knowledge in its discipline, field, or subject area? Does it present original research?

Determining the status of individual articles takes time and practice. If you have followed the steps above, and you are still not sure, check with your professor for assistance.

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Created: 2003/09/30 Last updated: 2014/05/06
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