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Articles, Books, and . . . ? Understanding the Many Types of Information Found in Libraries

Articles

What They Are

Use Them When You Need...

Short works, anywhere from a paragraph up to about 30 pages, published as part of some larger work.

  • Narrowly focused analysis.
  • Detailed findings from individual studies.
  • The latest information on a topic.

Because of their short length, articles often exclude background info and explanations, so they're usually the last stop in your research process, after you've narrowed down your topic and need to find very specific information.

The main thing to remember about articles is that they're almost always published in some larger work, like a journal, a newspaper, or an anthology. It's those "article containers" that define the types of articles, how you use them, and how you find them.

Articles are also the main reason we have so many databases. The Library Catalog lists everything we own, but only at the level of whole books and journals. It will tell you we have the New York Times, and for what dates, but it doesn't know what articles are in it. There is no single database that indexes all articles.

Physical Media

While newer journals and magazines are usually online, many older issues are still only available in paper. In addition, many of our online subscriptions explicitly don't include the latest material, specifically to encourage sales of print subscriptions. Older newspapers are usually transferred to microfilm.

Scholarly Sources

The terms academic or scholarly journal are usually synonymous with peer-reviewed, but check the journal's publishing policies to be sure. Trade journals, magazines, and newspapers are rarely peer-reviewed.

Primary or Secondary Sources

In the social sciences and humanities, articles are usually secondary sources; the exceptions are articles reporting original research findings from field studies. Primary source articles are more common in the physical and life sciences, where many articles are reporting primary research results from experiments, case studies, and clinical trials.

Academic Journals

Clues that you're reading an academic article

  1. Abstract at beginning
  2. Footnotes or endnotes
  3. Bilbliography or list of references

Articles in academic (peer-reviewed) journals are the primary forum for scholarly communication, where scholars introduce and debate new ideas and research. They're usually not written for laymen, and assume familiarity with other recent work in the field. Journal articles also tend to be narrowly focused, concentrating on analysis of one or two creative works or studies, though they may also contain review articles or literature reviews which summarize recent published work in a field.

In addition to regular articles, academic journals often include book reviews (of scholarly books) and letters from readers commenting on recent articles.

Magazines and Trade Journals

Clues that you're reading a non-academic article

  1. No abstract, footnotes or endnotes
  2. Decorative photos
  3. Advertisements

Unlike scholarly journals, magazines are written for a mainstream audience and are not peer-reviewed. A handful of academic journals (like Science and Nature) blur the line between these two categories; they publish peer-reviewed articles, but combine them with news, opinions, and full-color photos in a magazine-style presentation.

Trade journals are targeted toward a specific profession or industry. Despite the name, they are usually not peer-reviewed. However, they sometimes represent a gray area between popular magazines and scholarly journals. When in doubt, ask your professor or TA whether a specific source is acceptable.

Newspapers

Newspapers as Primary Sources

Though usually written by journalists who were not direct witnesses to events, newspapers and news broadcasts may include quotes or interviews from people who were. In the absence of first-person accounts, contemporary news reports may be the closest thing to a primary source available.

Of all the content types listed here, newspapers are the fastest to publish. Use newspaper articles to find information about recent events and contemporary reports of/reactions to historic events.

Newspapers provide special challenges for libraries. Because the paper they're printed on disintegrates rapidly, they can't be stored in paper, so older issues are usually only available in microfilm or digital versions. They're also just huge; while a magazine or journal may have a few dozen articles every month, a typical newspaper publishes hundreds of articles every day. Because of this, news articles are usually not included in most databases, so they don't swamp all the other content types in search results; you need to use specialized news databases.

Reviews

Reviews are a type of article that can appear in any of the categories above. The type of publication will usually determine the type of review. Newspapers and magazines review movies, plays, general interest books, and consumer products. Academic journals review scholarly books.

Note that a review is not the same as scholarly analysis and criticism! Book reviews, even in scholarly journals, are usually not peer-reviewed.

Review Scholarly Criticism
  • about a recently released work
  • usually short (under a page)
  • consumer-focused; provides a recommendation for potential readers/viewers/users
  • about a work from any point in history
  • usually a full-length article
  • scholar-focused; provides analysis for fellow scholars studying the work

Conference Papers

In addition to publishing articles in academic journals, scholars also present papers at academic conferences and symposia. This is sometimes a precursor to later publication in a full journal (possibly after substantial revision), but also may be the only form of distribution a particular work receives. Conference papers usually undergo some level of review, which may or may not be full peer-review, but are typically accepted as "scholarly works."

Conference papers aren't always published and can be tricky to find. Recent conference papers are often online, along with the PowerPoint files or other materials used in the actual presentation. However, access may be limited to conference participants and/or members of the academic organization which sponsored the conference.

In paper formats, all of the papers from a certain conference may be re-printed in the conference proceedings. Search for Proceedings of the [name of conference] to find what's available, or ask for help from a librarian. But be aware that published proceedings may only include abstracts or even just the name of the presenter and the title of the presentation. This is especially true of poster presentations, which really are large graphic posters (which don't translate well to either printed books or computer monitors).

Technical Reports

As the name implies, most technical reports are about research in the physical sciences or engineering. However, there are also technical reports produced in the life and social sciences,

Technical reports are documents that describe the results or status of a specific research project, most commonly produced for the sponsors of the project. As such they're technically internal documents that don't always see general publication. However, some research sponsors, most notably the US federal government, allow (or require) public distribution of their technical reports.

Like conference papers, some technical reports are eventually transformed into academic journal articles, but they may also be released after a journal article to provide supplementary data that didn't fit within the article. Also like conference papers, technical reports can be hard to find, especially older reports which may only be available in microfiche. Ask for help from a librarian!

Anthologies

Anthologies are a cross-over example. They're books that contain articles (chapters). Anthologies may be collections of articles by a single author, or collections of articles on a theme from different authors chosen by an editor. Many anthologies reprint articles already published elsewhere, but some contain original works.

Anthologies are rarely peer-reviewed, but they still may be considered scholarly works, depending on the reputation of the authors and editors. Use the same criteria listed for scholarly books.

Of course, reprints of articles originally published in peer-reviewed journals retain their "scholarly" status. (Note that most style manuals have special rules for citing reprinted works.)