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When is Scholary not Peer-Reviewed?

September 26, 2008

I really, really dislike long editorial-like blog entries, but this issue is important to both CMJN faculty and students, and it has come up with the students and the instructor during a recent library instruction.  These are just some of my thoughts about terminology and library research.

Scholarly” is one of those terms that has multiple meanings when it comes to research. In the old days it was used almost exclusively as a synonym for peer-reviewed or refereed journals. If the professor said “It must be a scholarly article”, it was understood–get peer-reviewed sources. Nowadays, because of  web publishing, it’s not so clear cut. Students are often confused and most library help guides still make no differentiation between scholarly and peer-reviewed or refereed journals — you get the big three categories: popular, trade and scholarly/peer-reviewed that use the same examples over and over. However, you don’t really see much about “scholarly” when it needs to be applied to non-refereed/peer reviewed publications.

My advice to students: if you are presented with an assignment where the professor says “You must use scholarly resources”, ask them what they mean by scholarly. It’s just like when they say “You cannot use the internet”. Sometimes they mean no computer except to type the assignment and sometimes they mean library resources are o.k. but don’t do a Google or Yahoo search. Depending on the professor or instructor scholarly could mean peer-reviewed/refereed or, it could mean a resource that falls somewhere between the definition of “popular” on one end and “peer-reviewed” on the other.

If we look just at traditional publications; for instance, Time Magazine falls into the popular column. It has brief articles on a variety of subjects that may or may not be signed by an author, is found on the newsstand and is written for the general public. Journal of Communication is very much a peer-reviewed/refereed publication. It has lengthy, signed and documented articles that have gone through a review process intended for a specialized audience and written by experts. By this definition, any peer-reviewed publication is scholarly but what about CQResearcher? It has lengthy, documented articles on a variety of subjects usually written by experts for a general audience. However, while the articles are edited, they do not go through a peer-reviewed process. The articles are scholarly without being peer-reviewed.

Think of applying “scholarly”  on an article by article basis rather than a publication basis. Here’s a citation:

Carr, N. (2008, July). Is Google Making Us Stupid?. Atlantic Monthly. 302(1), 56-63.

Atlantic Monthly is definitely a popular publication, but here is a lengthy article written for a general audience by an expert who is not an academic. Other examples to consider are lengthy reviews in something like Times Literary Supplement or The New York Times Book Review that can be compared to a lit review in an academic paper.  Trade publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education should be viewed this way. Although the articles are written for a specific audience or profession, they go beyond the usual news within the subject area and could in no way be considered popular.

The idea of scholarly also takes on more meaning in these days when publications are “born digital” and there is no print counterpoint. Think about documents written or web pages created to report substantial research efforts of agencies or organizations. These publications might not have gone through a peer-reviewed process in the academic journal sense, yet they inform not only the general reader but also influence the direction of an academic researcher.

Perhaps I am making too much of a distinction and this has always been a part of the evaluative process for research. But if I am, would this be coming up at the reference desk or in library instruction sessions? Is this happening because the context changes with each generation’s life experience? I don’t know. What do you think? Please, let me know.

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