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How Do I Know if it is a Web Source or Journal Article?

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Lederer, Naomi. "Is it Information on the Web or a Journal/Magazine Article? A Web Guideline for Teachers." Academic Exchange Quarterly 3.3 (Fall 1999): 67-69.

[Note: Web site addresses have been updated since the printed version of this was published.]

Many students may be confused about what is from the web and what uses web technology. For example, some students come to our library with directions that they may only use two or three web sources for their research papers. This in itself is not bad - it is even admirable. However, because web technology provides access to reputable publishers' indexes and journals, students may get confused about the differences between using software designed for use through the web, and looking at sources on the web. Our library has access to the entire World Wide Web, and also has paid for access to hundreds of indexes (some with full texts of selected articles) and full-text journals that are reached through the web interface. In addition, our library has links to scholarly journals that provide free access to their articles. These full text articles are not generic "web sources"; they just happen to be available through the technology of the web.

Students, with strict instructions about what materials they may use for their projects, sometimes find themselves in a quandary. They have been told not to rely on the web, but the indexes the librarian recommends to them are more and more frequently appearing to be on the web (which they are, but . . .). Sometimes students need to be convinced that it is "OK" to use these sources because what they are using is a published index (electronically available on the web), subscribed to by the library, that just happens to have the full texts of some or all of its articles. These are not random web sources or search engine created categories. In some instances librarians are able to assure the students that articles have a print equivalent, so they are not "web" sources. The "it is available in print" argument is not true for all scholarly sources, so that explanation slants the truth a bit because there are a growing number of scholarly journals that are published solely in electronic format; it does, however, simplify the librarian's explanation.


Teachers are encouraged to continue to limit the number of web sources (depending on the topic), but should explain to their students the difference between sources "published" on the web and journal articles that just happen to be electronically available (through an index or directly from a journal publisher's web site). Describing the differences in class and designing an activity or activities that give the students a chance to actually see examples, will help them determine which sources are which.

For example: Journal of Extension <> , beginning with v. 32, no. 1 (June 1994), is an electronic-only journal. It has an ISSN number and is peer-reviewed (scholarly). It has electronic access to back issues beginning with Fall 1987. The home page identifies the organization affiliated with the Journal of Extension and has instructions for authors. The articles found here are scholarly journal articles.

A magazine that publishes a print version, Time, has at < web-only news, articles from an identified issue of the magazine, a way to search their site, an archive (with a view issues by cover option), links to the publisher's other magazine's web sites, and, on every page, electronic "no postage" subscription cards. In addition, there are electronic advertisements from other companies. With the possible exception of "Today's News," The articles found here are magazine articles.

In contrast, there are articles expressing opinions on a's Society and Culture page <> . There are links to essays on many topics that don't have clear "answers" or at any rate, don't have clear agreement as to what the answers should be. These essays, some with links to other pages on the web, have been selected by named "guides." Guides are self-selected; there is a "Be a Guide" link on every page along with's copyright statement. In other words, an essay may be extremely useful (or not), but articles found here would not qualify as a published journal or magazine article. These are "web" sources of information.


Things can be murky when it comes to educational and governmental sites. Many scholars have created valuable web sites with useful and reliable information, but these sites are not currently considered published articles. The US Government now publishes a large percentage of its sources on the web; these sources are "official"--but may or may not qualify as published articles.

For example: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) <> is a government publication. Articles located on this site (from 1993 through the present), are respectable US Government articles.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Internet site <> , has many kinds of information of interest to consumers - press releases, materials from various centers (e.g. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition), etc. From this site it is possible to search FDA Consumer, a magazine to which individuals may subscribe (and frequently found in libraries). From the FDA Search page articles can be looked for by topic from the magazine; these are US Government articles. However, the default search is all of the site, which includes FDA Consumer articles, but also pulls up Federal Register entries, bibliographies (and parts of long bibliographies), transcripts of meetings, etc. Many of these are useful research sources, but they are not "journal articles."


As a librarian, I tell students that the final arbitrator is the person grading the assignment. By clarifying and showing examples of what is acceptable in class, a teacher gives students the essential information that they need to know to complete their research projects. However, teachers (at all levels K-16) will need to clarify in their own minds the differences between "web sources" and "published articles retrieved off the web" before explaining them to their students. I hope this article will help.

Thanks to Naomi Lederer at Colorado State University Library for her permission to share this article in its entirety.
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