The University of South Alabama Online Learning Lab has developed a useful checklist for understanding what a research article is:
Research articles should include a hypothesis, a proposed question. Does the article propose an assumption to be tested? Remember the scientific method.
(Source: University of Southern Alabama Online Learning Lab: Research vs. Non-Research Articles)
What is Peer Review?
Peer Review is defined as: “a process by which a scholarly work (such as a paper or a research proposal) is checked by a group of experts in the same field to make sure it meets the necessary standards before it is published or accepted.”
An article must go through a rigorous review process by experts in the field before it can be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
You will hear of “peer-reviewed journals” or “peer-reviewed publications” in your studies. It is important to note that not all individual items in a peer-reviewed journal are necessarily peer-reviewed. For example, an editorial piece or a letter to the editor(s) may not have been peer-reviewed. A peer-reviewed article will usually be lengthy, based on a research study, and contain a reference list at the end.
In most databases, there is a peer-reviewed box you can check to limit your results accordingly.
By clicking on the Peer Reviewed box in a database, you will only get peer-reviewed results.
What is a Scholarly Journal?
Scholarly journals can be referred to as academic journals or even as peer-reviewed journals. Scholarly journals include original research articles in a specific academic field. Authors of scholarly research articles will most often be experts in the field and have their credentials listed.
It’s important to note that while some consider scholarly and peer-reviewed to be synonymous, not all peer-reviewed articles are scholarly. So be sure to check both peer-reviewed and scholarly/research articles to be sure to get the content you seek.
(Adapted from: What is a Scholarly Journal, by SFU Library.)
There are a number of synonyms for scholarly in the limiters provided in the databases, so besides scholarly, you might run across academic, research article, peer-reviewed, or scientific. This type of content can involve a range of research methodologies, including randomized controlled trials. To further complicate things, these terms can have different implications depending on your field of study.
What is a Professional Journal?
"A professional journal or professional magazine is a collection of articles and images about diverse topics of applied science and professional news items. Usually these articles are written by journalists or scholars and are geared toward a public interested in science in general or in a specific field of applied science. Specialized magazines may also cover very practical information for professionals in the field of forestry, pulp and paper industry, electrical engineering, or education etc. They are often published by professional organizations in these fields."
(Source: University of Twente Library)
Professional journals may cover very "serious" material, but to find consistent scholarly information you should use the scientific/scholarly/academic journals as opposed to professional journals.
What is a Trade Publication?
“A trade publication is a term for a specific kind of publication -- usually a magazine -- that is geared to people who work in a specific business.”
(Source: About.com Media Careers)
Trade publications will often be similar to a popular magazine (e.g. People magazine), with shorter articles and advertisements, but what is different is that they cater to a specific business or industry.
Trade publications are generally not peer-reviewed.
What is a Popular Magazine?
“Popular magazines are those types of magazines that target the general audience with current stories and information”.
Popular magazines are not peer-reviewed and usually contain short articles and many ads and graphics. Authors don’t necessarily have credentials in the topic and articles generally don’t have a reference list.