For first-year college students–and many beyond the first year as well–the concept of using a scholarly journal is new. At the reference desk, I often get questions as to whether something is “scholarly” or not. It doesn’t help that professors use interchangeable terms for the same thing: scholarly, peer-reviewed, refereed, academic. No wonder students are confused!
In the “olden” days of library research, it was pretty simple. Students would come into the library and grab a journal, magazine, or newspaper off of the shelf. They could hold the periodical in hand, flip through it, and get a good idea of its contents. Now with online databases, this is not always possible–and if it is, it’s not intuitive. You are often staring at one article on your computer screen. As libraries continue to cancel print subscriptions, online access will not only be the primary way students access content (as has been the case for the last decade), but the only way.
When I teach information literacy sessions, I often go through the different types of periodicals (scholarly, trade, magazines, newspapers). This is especially true if the professor has limits on what students can or cannot use. In some classes, no magazine or newspaper articles are allowed.
This week I did an information literacy session where scholarly journals, specialized magazines and trade publications were OK to use, but the professor did not want students using general interest magazines (Newsweek, Time, etc…). The students’ assignment was to take the issue of teen pregnancy, examine the causes, and develop a list of solutions.
To help students understand the different types of articles, I passed out this handout:
Then, since the students were all studying the same topic (teenage pregnancy), I gathered five different articles from the databases and passed them out to students. I put the students into groups and asked them to do two things:
- Figure out which category each article belonged to: scholarly, trade, magazines, newspapers
- Rate the articles (on scale of 1 to 5) in terms of how useful it would be for the assignment
The five articles I choose, included:
- Scholarly journal article on sexual and reproductive rights of pregnant Ecuadorian teenage girls (Demonstrates narrowed focus of scholarly articles. Not useful for students’ assignment since it focuses on Ecuador).
- Scholarly journal article that evaluates an “abstinence-plus” sex education curriculum (Useful because it discusses one possible solution for teen pregnancy).
- Trade publication for social workers that provided statistics on teen pregnancy in the U.S. and tips for working with pregnant teens (Useful because it provides good statistics and background information).
- Magazine article published in The American Conservative about MTV’s 16 and Pregnant program (Specialized magazines were OK to use, but this one had political bias that should be avoided).
- Newspaper article from The Washington Post about a government sex ed program (Good basic info on a government program, but students not allowed to use newspaper articles).
Also, a little humor can go a long way in getting your points across to students (e.g.):
- “If it looks boring, it’s probably a scholarly journal.” Students laugh, and then you can emphasize that although they “look” boring, they often have the best information.
- “Attractive people–and politicians–appear on the cover of magazines. Ugly people appear on the covers of trade publications.” (As I hold up a copy of Library Journal–ouch!). But it emphasizes that trade publications are geared towards people in a specific job or industry.
I give students a few minutes to examine the articles and then we have a discussion on the different types of articles and I ask them which ones they think would be most useful for their assignment. I’ve done this activity in many sessions and it usually goes over well. I think it’s important that students know how to identify the types of sources they need before they actually start searching. From there, we delve into the library databases and I get fewer questions like, “What kind of article is this?” A win-win for students and the librarian.