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Identifying Search Terms

Once you've selected a topic, create a list of words and phrases that describe the concept. Then create a list of synonyms and similar phrases that might also be used to describe the concept. If your topic is "the effects of online courses on academic performance in higher education," you might identify the following initial terms:

  • online courses
  • academic performance
  • higher education

After identifying synonyms and similar terms, the list might look like this:

  • online courses, web-based instruction, distance education
  • academic performance, academic achievement, student evaluation
  • higher education, university, college

For help identifying additional synonyms and similar phrases, check these sources:

  • Subject headings of relevant articles in a database
  • Subject headings of relevant books in the library catalog
  • Indexes in textbooks

Evaluating Resources

In the process of gathering research materials, you will probably locate resources in various formats, including books, articles, and websites. Not everything you find, however, will be suitable or trustworthy. It's natural to experience information overload.  Today we're bombarded with so much information, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.

Remember that it's important to evaluate your sources by considering the following factors:  

  • Accuracy of information
  • Authorship - who wrote it?
  • Publisher or sponsor
  • Objectivity or bias
  • Currency (date)
  • Verifiability
  • Referral to other sources
  • Depth of coverage (in-depth or superficial)

Popular vs. Academic Materials

A scholarly (or academic) resource is one that is written by experts in the field for experts in the field.  A popular resource is one that is written for the general public.  Your local newspaper is a popular resource.

Scholarly Journals Popular Magazines

Publication has a narrow scope or is limited to a specific field or sub-field of study; goal is to promote and disseminate scholarly research

Publication is designed for a broad, general audience; primary goal is to make a profit

Intended for academic or specialized audiences such as professors, researchers, students

Does not require expertise in the field to understand the information; designed for the general population

Has tables and graphics

Has pictures and media included

Has references, bibliographies, notes and/or works cited included

May have verified facts, but does not include references or bibliographies

Has little or no advertising; included advertising promotes books, journals, conferences

Has advertising

Has an author and author affiliations; authors are experts in their respective field

May or may not have an author listed; authors are generalists, journalists, or freelance writers

Published by a scholarly press or professional organization

Published by a for-profit entity

Editorial board of scholars in the field who review articles prior to publication in a process known as refereed or peer-review

Editor is a journalist who works for the publisher

Databases usually have some mechanism to search for only scholarly, or peer reviewed, articles. Look for a check box on the search screen which will allow you to limit search results to only scholarly journals if your professor requires a scholarly article.

What other professionals say about scholarly and popular sources

Peer Review

Peer-reviewed journals are also called “refereed” or “juried” journals. They are sometimes called "scholarly" or "academic" journals. The peer review process means that a manuscript is reviewed by others in the same field. These individuals (peers) read and review the manuscript, offering their comments and judgement as to its value. The process is intended to enhance the quality of the publications.

Finding Peer Reviewed Journals

  • Ask the librarian to help you find a professional journal in a particular field.
  • Use a discipline-specific index (Education Full Text, Applied Science and Technology, PsycInfo, etc.) While this strategy will help you find peer-reviewed journal articles, you should be aware that not all citations in such indexes are from peer-reviewed journals. 
  • Use special features of online databases. Many allow you to limit your search results to peer-reviewed journals.
  • Check the Serials Directory, available from the Databases A-Z List, to see if it characterizes the journal in question as “peer-reviewed.”
  • Check the “Instructions to Authors” section in the journal, where the editor explains the process used to decide whether an article is appropriate for a particular journal.
  • Look carefully at a journal issue and consider the characteristics listed below. If you are in doubt, consult with a librarian or your professor.

Characteristics of Peer Reviewed Journals

Peer-reviewed journals have characteristics that distinguish them from popular magazines. There is not always a clear-cut distinction between popular magazines and journals, however; some publications have qualities of both. Following is a comparison of peer-reviewed journals and popular magazines.

  • Journal articles are written by experts in the field. Often, popular magazine articles are written by a staff writer.
  • Journal articles are often intended for a person with knowledge in a specific discipline: a medical journal is written for doctors, a legal journal for attorneys, etc.
  • The author of a journal article is always listed—usually, along with his or her qualifications or brief information about the author.
  • Journal articles include a list of references. This allows you to see what the sources are and to check them if you wish, providing you with other possible resources.
  • Scholarly journals are often published by a professional organization or society.
  • Often, the word “journal” appears in the title. However, this is not always a good clue: Ladies Home Journal, for instance, is a popular magazine.
  • Often, a journal article is preceded by an abstract, or summary of the content.
  • Journals do not include advertisements; popular magazines do.
  • Titles of articles in journals are very revealing of content, not just clever or catchy, as is often the case with popular magazines.
  • Scholarly journal articles often report on research; they may include theoretical assumptions, methodology, hypotheses, results, and conclusions. Popular magazines may report conclusions as factual (without including all the details and research.)

Books vs. Journals

Two common types of sources that you will find in the library's holdings are books and journals.  There are some differences that you will want to keep in mind as you look for and use these sources.


Academic books can be somewhat different from typical books that you find in a bookstore.  The academic library will have some familiar types of books such as novels or books on historical events.  Many books in the academic library will not be written for a general audience, so you may find it harder to understand all of the concepts being discussed.  A good subject encyclopedia may help you get up to speed.  Academic books may also collect articles (sometimes reprints) and proceedings of academic conferences.  

The advantage of an academic book is that it will often give you a good overview of the topic.  Remember to check the publication date of the book.  If it is several years old, it is likely that there have been more recent findings on the subject.  You probably won't have to read the book cover-to-cover, so don't worry about the page count.  Use the Table of Contents and Index to find chapters and sections of the book that may be helpful.  Skim the first page of chapters to see if it is worth deeper reading.  Finally, check the Bibliography for more books and articles on the topic.


Academic journals publish articles by academics for academics.  If you are new to reading academic works, this may be a challenge because the article will likely use jargon and discuss complex issues without providing much context for the reader.  Again, a good subject encyclopedia and dictionary can be useful here.  Academic articles usually focus on one issue or study.  The article is likely part of a larger discussion that continues in other articles.  That means that it is a good idea to try and find the most recent articles on the topic and then use the Bibliography and Literature Review in the article to find earlier writings on the topic.