23 Information Sources: Traditional Formats

As we saw in the chapter scenario, information sources are often identified by traditional formats: is the information found in a book, a scholarly journal article, or a magazine or newspaper article? Outside of these typically being classified as secondary sources (particularly in the humanities), these traditional formats have a few other commonalities: they all tend to be trustworthy; they go through some sort of publication and review process; and they all are fixed formats—that is, they can’t be updated without creating a whole new version or edition of the resource. They can also be available as print (physical) or digital (online). So, what makes them different or unique?


Three books on a shelf

You are probably familiar with this type of information source, and it might just be the first kind of resource you think of when you think of libraries. Books are different from the other resources in a few ways: They can explore and present a topic in breadth and depth much more easily than a magazine or newspaper can.  You may find some special magazine issues or journal issues that are devoted to a theme, but the coverage will still be limited compared to a book’s possibility. Books can be written by a single author or multiple authors; they can be compiled by an editor to represent different viewpoints or writings from various authors all exploring the same topic from different angles. The information found in books may not be the most current information available – as it takes time to research, review, and edit so thoroughly.


Unlike books, which are often a one-and-done production, periodicals include materials that are published periodically, at regular intervals.  Specific titles publish at their own set intervals, but a common pattern is:

  • Academic/Scholarly Journal Articles – monthly or quarterly
  • Magazines – weekly or monthly
  • Newspapers – daily or weekly

Academic/Scholarly Journal Articles

Journal article icon shows many pages full of text

Sometimes also called “peer-reviewed” articles, these go through a rigorous review process before they are published. They reflect research that is considered primary or secondary depending on how the research is conducted: In the humanities (such as English or History), these are considered secondary sources, but in the sciences (such as Biology) and social sciences (such as Anthropology), original research articles are considered primary sources. Unlike books, these journal articles tend to focus on specific questions about a topic; they don’t explore or present a topic as broadly or deeply as a book, but the information they present can be much more current than a book. Also, because they are so focused, they might be seen as more specialized than a book’s coverage, and they will generally be written to an expert audience. This means that they are not written for the average person to read, but for those who are already familiar with the concepts surrounding the topic. Their target audience are peers in the field, others who have some expertise in that specific subject area—even though undergraduates are often required to use them, too, as scholars becoming experts in the discipline. Another thing to consider is that access to journal articles can be tricky. If your library doesn’t have access to a particular journal, either through a database or direct subscription, getting access on your own could be expensive and complicated; however, as a college student, you will likely have access to resources beyond your college library through interlibrary loan (ILL).  ILL is a system where libraries borrow from other libraries on behalf of their patrons and within the permissions afforded by copyright law. ILL is a great way to expand your access to resources beyond your college library, but it’s important to note that this normally takes at least two days (for items that can be sent electronically), and it can take up to two weeks for physical items to be sent. This is one of many reasons to start your research project early, as soon as it’s assigned!

Magazine Articles

Magazine icon shows short text and colorful images

These are a bit different than your academic/scholarly journal articles. Magazines tend to use a lot of colorful images designed to grab a reader’s attention, while scholarly journals feature graphs, charts, and tables with very little color, designed to convey information. Magazine articles will be written so that the average person can understand what is being discussed in the article. The articles tend to be much shorter than a scholarly journal article. Magazine articles can feature interviews and will look at current events or trends, but they won’t be seeking answers to research-based questions. Instead, their focus is on what might hold popular interest. There are magazines that are designed specifically to inform the general public about issues that are shared in scholarly journals; intended to provide a bridge connecting non-experts to new knowledge the experts are sharing from their studies, they distill the information in a way that reduces the “cherry-picking” and other simplification that can taint information in the backward flow as described previously in the information cycle section. Generally considered more reliable and credible than their more flashy counterparts, these publications aren’t counting on sensational headlines to sell issues; instead, they rely on their reputation and trustworthiness to keep their readers’ attention.  Examples of such magazines include National Geographic, Scientific American and Psychology Today, but there are others. Professors, subject librarians, and others within your major of study can help you identify those in your discipline.

Newspaper Articles

Newspaper icon

Newspaper articles typically describe current events. In contrast to magazine and scholarly journal articles, newspaper articles tend to be very short. Newspapers are typically published daily, and therefore provide the most up-to-date information about an event. Their authors are journalists who may engage in investigative reporting, but they do not conduct original scholarly research. While these articles are often proofread and reviewed for accuracy before publication, they do not go through an extensive peer review process.

Concept Review Exercise: Traditional Formats



This section includes material from the source book, Introduction to College Research, as well as the following:

Image: “Articles” by Freepik, adapted by Aloha Sargent, from Flaticon.com

Image: “Book” by mavadee, adapted by Aloha Sargent, from Flaticon.com

Image: “Magazine” by Freepik, adapted by Aloha Sargent, from Flaticon.com

Image: “Newspaper” by Freepik, adapted by Aloha Sargent, from Flaticon.com

Original material by book author Jamie Holmes.


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The Insiders: Information Literacy for Okies Everywhere by Adam Brennan; Jamie Holmes; Calantha Tillotson; and Sarah Burkhead Whittle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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