Academic Journals: What are They?

Jerz > Writing > Academic

An academic journal publishes scholarly, peer-reviewed articles written by experts. The function of a journal is to distribute knowledge, not to make money for the publishers (see: Academic Journals vs. Magazines).

scholarly — each fact or opinion is documented

Scholarly documentation provides the exact source – including the author and the page number – for every important bit of outside information. The article should end with adetailed bibliography. Footnotes or endnotes may be present.

  • Offering a list of “recommendations for further reading” or a vague collection of “sources” is not enough.
  • The article will probably be longcomplex, and possibly difficult for a non-expert to understand right away.

peer-reviewed — selected and approved by a panel of experts

Each academic journal has a peer review board (a panel of experts) that decides which submissions are acceptable for publication. The review board may send a paper back to the author with suggestions for improvement.

The peer review process doesn’t simply involve circling spelling mistakes. The review board will investigate and challenge the author’s major assumptions and conclusions, and if the board feels the article is worth further consideration, the author will have a chance to respond. If the article does appear in the journal, you can feel confident that people who know a lot more than you do about a particular topic have identified a particular article as a trustworthy source.

If the topic is the subject of a lot of scholarly attention, some other scholar in the field is likely to publish a new article that challenges the mistakes is the kind of work that is carried out by other scholars in the field, who may wish to publish a new article that challenges or corrects certain details in a published article.)

Reality Check: Peer Review Isn’t Perfect.

In an earlier edition of this handout, I presented a much more idealistic view of peer review, for the benefit of my undergraduate students who hadn’t come across that term before. But some feedback I found online prompted me to go into a little more depth.

See “The Limits of Peer-Review (Sidebar).”

An undergraduate is still better off citing a peer-reviewed article than something posted in “Crazy Joe’s Term Paper Archive,” but journalists should check out a peer-reviewed source with just as much thoroughness and skepticism as they would check out any other source. The old newswriting saw still applies: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” (See also: Academic Journals — Compared to Magazines.)

written by experts — not by journalists

Academic journals will typically identify their contributors as professors, graduate students, or others with first-hand experience with the subject matter. If the article credits the author as a journalist (“staff writer”, “correspondent” or “special” freelance contributor) then you are probably reading a magazine.

  • A journalist may very well produce a thoughtful, insightful, and important overview of a current issue in an academic field, but the journalist’s job is to summarize and explain what other people do.
  • Without those others doing the academic work, the reporter would have no story to report. (See also: Academic Journals — Compared to Magazines.)

Dennis G. Jerz
28 Dec 1999 — First posted.
10 Dec 2002 — Minor updates.
22 Jan 2007 — Toned down a too-idealistic description of peer review.
04 Apr 2011 — Minur tweaks.


Related Links
The Limits of Peer-Review (Sidebar)
The people who sit on review boards are human, and they do make mistakes. It is impractical for the editoral staff to re-create every experiment, or re-read every source that the article cites.It is certainly possible that even a peer-reviewed academic article may include mistakes, misrepresntations, omissions, and outright fabrications. A physicist named Alan Sokal, suspicious of the effectiveness of the peer review process, submitted a rather unusual article to be peer reviewed by the journal Social Text.

Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Frederic Jameson and Andrew Ross — publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

The answer, unfortuantely, is yes. – Alan Sokal

Some journals are moving towards a more open, transparent system of debating the pros and cons of submissions. (For example, I linked to a page where I found criticism of this handout, and then explained how I revised in order to respond to that criticism. Traditional peer review would have handled all that anonymously, and the public would only see the end result.)