Skip to Main Content

Library Research E-Textbook - Instructor Version: The Information Life Cycle & Source Types

Introduction & Goals


It's important to be able to distinguish between various genres of literature (such as essays, poetry, short stories, and novels) because those genres have different qualities and characteristics that come into play when you consider and analyze them. It's even more important to be aware of genre characteristics when you're writing your own projects because you have to consider your writing form and audience.

Similarly, there are different types of information sources that you should know how to distinguish between because they provide different sorts of information. For instance, newspapers are good for factual reports and basic debate on current topics. On the other hand, books are less timely but include far more background information and comprehensive research on a topic. In addition to newspapers and books, other types of information sources include:

  • blogs
  • magazines (such as People or Newsweek)
  • academic or scholarly journals
  • government documents (materials published by local, state, or federal government entities
  • websites
  • newsletters


By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Understand the importance of the Information Life Cycle, and
  • Distinguish between the different types of information sources.

The Importance of the Information Life Cycle

When researching your paper/project/topic, it is helpful to think of your sources as being a part of an Information Life Cycle.  All sources that comment on a particular topic are influenced by sources that came before and will influence those that are published after.  The best researchers chart the life cycle of their topics through the creation of a literature review, because one of the most important things you can do when starting research is to scan the existing information and determine what has already been said about your topic (Bobish & Jacobson, 9).  A literature review helps the researcher to understand the way a topic has been discussed and influenced over time, and also serves as a way to show others the manner in which their own research comments on and adds to the life cycle.  This is really what research is all about: Critically analyzing the information of a topic's life cycle and then contributing something unique to the scholarly discussion.


Check out the following video to see an example of the a particular topic's Information Life Cycle:

Types of Information Sources

There are three types of publications, and each has a different purpose and audience.  When we discuss journals and magazines, we usually categorize these publications into three broad categories: scholarlypopular, and trade.

One very crucial differences between scholarly journals and other types of publiactions is peer review.

How do you know if an article you found in a database is from a scholarly journal?  Just take a look at this chart:

CriteriaScholarly JournalPopular MagazineTrade Magazine/Journal
The Journal of Biological Chemistry
Time magazine
Publisher's Weekly
Content (Accuracy) In-depth, primary account of original findings written by the researcher(s); very specific information, with the goal of scholarly communication. Secondary discussion of someone else's research; may include personal narrative or opiniongeneral information, purpose is to entertain or inform. Current news, trends and products in a specific industry; practical information for professionals working in the field or industry.
Author (Authority) Author's credentials are provided; usually a scholar or specialist with subject expertise. Author is frequently a journalist paid to write articles, may or may not have subject expertise. Author is usually a professional in the field, sometimes a journalist with subject expertise.
Audience (Coverage) Scholars, researchers, and students. General public; the interested non-specialist. Professionals in the field; the interested non-specialist.
Language (Coverage) Specialized terminology or jargon of the field; requires expertise in subject area. Vocabulary in general usage; easily understandable to most readers. Specialized terminology or jargon of the field, but not as technical as a scholarly journal.
Graphics (Coverage) Graphs, charts, and tables; very few advertisements and photographs. Graphs, charts and tables; lots of glossy advertisements and photographs. Photographs; some graphics and charts; advertisements targeted to professionals in the field.
Layout & Organization (Currency) Structured; includes the article abstract, goals and objectives, methodology, results (evidence), discussion, conclusion, and bibliography. Informal; may include non-standard formatting. May not present supporting evidence or a conclusion. Informal; articles organized like a journal or a newsletter. Evidence drawn from personal experience or common knowledge.
Accountability (Objectivity) Articles are evaluated by peer-reviewers* or referees who are experts in the field; edited for content, format, and style. Articles are evaluated by editorial staff, not experts in the field; edited for format and style. Articles are evaluated by editorial staff who may be experts in the field, not peer-reviewed*; edited for format and style.
References (Objectivity) Required. Quotes and facts are verifiable. Rare. Little, if any, information about source materials is given. Occasional brief bibliographies, but not required.
Paging Page numbers are consecutive throughout the volume. Each issue begins with page 1. Each issue begins with page 1.
Other Examples
Scholarly Journal
Annals of Mathematics, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, History of Education Quarterly, Almost anything with Journal in the title.
Popular Magazine
Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, Ladies Home Journal, Cooking Light, Discover
Trade Magazine/Journal
Architectural Record, PC World, Restaurant Business, American Libraries, Psychology Today, School Band and Orchestra

This is a modified version of a document originally created by librarians at the University of Michigan Shapiro Undergraduate Library.

Watch the following video to get a better sense of the differences between popular and scholarly journal articles:

How to determine if a source is "peer reviewed"

Watch the following video to learn the process it takes for an article to become peer reviewed. In your time spent at SUNY Canton, you'll no doubt be assigned an article where you must find peer-reviewed articles for your research.  So watch this video closely to ensure that you'll understand exactly what your professor expects of you.

Explore Newspaper and Academic Journal Articles

For an example of how a database can help you tell the difference between various types of information sources, follow this link to the Criminal Justice Collection. After doing a keyword search you can select to browse either Newspaper or Academic Journal Articles by clicking the tabs below.

Activity Option 1: Locating a Scholarly Article

Find a scholarly journal article, eith erby going to the Southworth Library Learning Commons website and browsing the Current Periodicals section or by going to the online electronic journals databses.

Free write a paragraph or two (at least 200 words) answering the following questions:

  1. If you found your article online, what was our search term in the journal title search box? Why did you pick it?
  2. What journal dis you select for this exercise? Why do you think it's scholarly?
  3. Pick an article in this journal.  You don't need to read it all the way through, but scan the first couple of paragraphs.  What is it about?
  4. Can you imagine a related news event that may have led up to this line of scholarly inquiry? Use your imagination.

Note: This activity could be completed in class (have them bring a scholarly journal article to class) or as an ANGEL discussion board post (in which case, extra credit for responding to each other's posts can be an effective way to encourage conversation).

Please consider sharing your students' work with Rachel Santose ( for assessment purposes.

Activity Option 2: Scholarly vs. Popular Exercise

This worksheet asks students to compare two articles - one scholarly and one popular - on the same topic.

Please consider sharing your students' work with Rachel Santose ( for assessment purposes.