Distinguishing Between Popular and Scholarly Sources

So, your professor has asked you to put together a works cited page with at least one scholarly source, and you're not quite sure what might count.

Popular Articles

Let's start by looking at a popular article, Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Explain Your Mood?. The article, published by the NYT, would be found to be credible, but not necessarily scholarly. For example, the author--Peter Andrey Smith--is a journalist, not a scientist or researcher. Similarly, while the New York Times is edited, it's a publication aimed at a general audience, and articles published there aren't peer-reviewed.

Note, too, that while the article cites research in the text of the article, there are no citations, no abstract, and the illustrations are more fun than charts/tables/graphs explaining research. These are all traits of popular articles.

Scholarly Research Articles

PLOS scholarly.PNG

Now, let's look at a peer reviewed article: The Gut-Brain Axis in Healthy Females: Lack of Significant Association between Microbial Composition and Diversity with Psychiatric Measures, published in PLOS One in January 2017.

Right from the beginning, you'll notice that the article title is much more detailed compared to the NYT article: Mood in the earlier article has become "Psychiatric Measures," for starters. It's clear that the authors of Gut-Brain Axis believe that readers are interested in knowing specific, measurable detail, rather than large speculation about a topic.

Below the title information, you'll see that the author's contact info is listed, usually with links to research labs, federal labs, or college or university labs.

Similarly, right in the center of the page (or right under the publication info on the PDF version, you'll see an abstract: a summary of what the article is about. Often, this is a paragraph, but in PLOS, each section of the article is summarized in the abstract.

When you read scholarly research articles in the sciences, you'll also see a common set of headings:

  • Abstract: a paragraph summary of the research question and findings
  • Introduction: the research question: what did the scientists set out to know? Also provides context to the study: what did we know about the topic? Who answered the most important questions so far? Will include many citations.
  • Method: the experiment design
  • Results: The data gathered by the experiment
  • Discussion: analyzes the results. What do we understand about the topic after the experiment has been conducted?
  • Conclusion: lists further questions to be studied
  • References or Works Cited: functions just as yours will. What research has been referenced throughout the paper?

This will also help you to know that you're reading a research article.

Scholarly Review Articles

Scientific review articles aim to summarize current research on a topic, leading to a comparison of what is known about a topic as well as questions that remain to be addressed. Review articles will often summarize tens of articles, and so a long list of works cited is to be expected. Review articles also do not typically follow the structure of a research article. Often times, the word "review" will appear in the title.

Want to take a closer look? Infant Feeding and Risk of Developing Celiac Disease: A Systematic Review is a review article found on PubMedCentral, the government-sponsored free article database.


Need to know how to read your article?

Check out How to Read a Research Article.

You can also contact me or schedule a Research Appointment.