Identifying, Understanding, and Evaluating Research Sources
A discussion of the major sources students use in developing and writing research papers. Includes primary, secondary, tertiary; traditional and online.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
To write a research paper, you must start with, well, research. Research, however, is a very broad term that can be broken down into several categories. Let's begin with definitions of the major sources of research you will consider as you prepare a written assignment:
Primary sources are published original writings, reflections, and reports that can be found in books, periodicals, monographs conference proceedings, patents, and theses and dissertations.
Secondary sources are published writings and reports that analyze, critique, or report on a primary source and can be found in periodicals and reference books.
Tertiary sources aid the researcher in using primary and secondary sources and include indexes, dictionaries, guides, and bibliographies.
Nondocumentary sources are unpublished forms of communication and information, which can include conversations with faculty members, other students, and experts in the field.
Discuss sources with your professor before you begin your research since many instructors may require both primary and secondary sources for your paper.
Traditional Research Tools
On your college campus is a wonderful building that you may not be very familiar with. It's called the library. Library usage has dropped off dramatically among college students since the Internet became popular. But the library and its personnel remain superlative resources for research. Its true that you can access many of those resources without setting foot in the library, but we recommend that you do explore what your campus library has to offer. Once you know what's available to you, you can make smart judgments about how much you can gain from a physical presence in the library and how many of the library's resources you can access from remote locations, such as your dorm room.
Your No. 1 research ally in the library is the research librarian. Make friends with him or her right away. Research librarians are there to help, and they love to find the answers. They won't do your research for you, but they will steer you in the right direction. A typical question for a research librarian might start out: "Where can I find information about...?" The research librarian can also help with an overall research and keyword strategy.
Now let's look at the major categories of research tools that you can find in the library (many of which can be accessed from other locations through your campus computer network). Most of these are tertiary sources that will help you identify, find, and use the primary and secondary sources you need for your paper's topic.
Reference books. These specialized publications contain facts compiled from many sources and are organized for quick and easy use. Many are available online either through your campus library or independently through the Internet; some may require a fee. They include:
- Encyclopedias. These volumes are designed to give you an overview of a topic (and are therefore very useful for topic selection and narrowing), including the definition, description, background, and bibliographic references.
- Dictionaries. These books, of course, contain information about words: meanings, derivation, spelling, pronunciation, syllabication, and usage. Some also contain biographical information, historical information, and pictures or other illustrations. Dictionaries may be useful in the early stages of your research because they yield synonyms that you can use in keyword searches. You can also use them to look up unfamiliar words you come across in your research.
- Yearbooks, handbooks, and almanacs. Yearbooks are publications issued annually to provide current information in narrative, statistical, or directory form. Handbooks are typically small books that treat broad subjects in brief form and serve as a record of current knowledge. Almanacs are annual calendars containing important dates and statistical information.
- Biographical materials. Biographical dictionaries contain brief information about the lives of individuals, often describing events that occurred during the time the person lived. Biographies are books that provide the most in-depth information on the lives of persons living or dead.
- Atlases. An atlas is a collection of maps; however, many atlases also contain descriptive data, demographic information, political history, and economic conditions.
- Indexes and periodical index databases. These tools provide bibliographic information on articles, essays, speeches, poems, and other written works in periodicals or as collected works.
Periodical index databases search magazines, newspapers, and academic journal articles. These indexes and databases cover a wide variety of disciplines. Publishers license these databases to college libraries, and most campuses have licenses for large numbers of databases through which you can access many full-text articles. In some cases you can access only abstracts of articles (short summaries of the essence of the article), but your library may have the print version of the full article or can order it for you from another library through its interlibrary-loan service. While the databases can usually be searched online from remote locations, you generally must go through your campus library's web site and enter a username and password to do so. Learn to use these databases because scholarly journals are the gold standard of academic research. Libraries usually offer online tutorials on how to use the databases, and library staff can also help you use them.
Library books and the library catalog. Of course, the library also has thousands of books outside the realm of reference books, and some of them may be valuable in your research. In the library, you can do a computerized search of your library's catalog of holdings, and you can generally conduct such a search on your own computer through your library's web site, as well.
Be sure that your research covers a rich variety of current sources -- books, periodicals, and online sources, as appropriate. A good rule of thumb is that, generally, sources should not be more than 10 years old unless it would be appropriate to cite older landmark works in your field.
Consider interviewing experts as part of your research. This often overlooked technique will distinguish your paper and impress your professor. You can find experts on your college campus and in the town in which your college is located or your hometown. You may also be surprised to discover that many well-known authors, scholars, and authorities are willing to be quoted in your paper. Send them a polite e-mail asking for responses to a couple of questions for a student paper.
Most college students are well acquainted with searching for information on the Internet through such major search engines as Google, Yahoo, and Bing. It is certainly possible to search the Internet and find plenty of research material for writing a college paper. The quality and trustworthiness of finding the bulk of your research material for a paper that way, however, is highly suspect. Just about anyone can write information and post it on the Internet. What you find, though, often isn't accurate or appropriate for a college paper. That's why the online and offline resources of your library should be the first places you explore when conducting research.
And that's why you should critically evaluate any Internet sources you're considering using. Robert Harris, for example, offers the CARS Checklist for Evaluating Internet Sources:
- Credibility: Is the source trustworthy? What are the author's credentials? Is he or she a known or respected authority? Is there any evidence of quality control on the site?
- Accuracy: Is the source up to date? When was it published online? Is it detailed, exact, comprehensive? Who is the site's audience and what is its purpose? Does its purpose reflect intentions to be accurate and complete?
- Reasonableness: Does the source seem fair, balanced, objective, and reasoned? Are any conflicts of interest evident? Can you detect any fallacies? Does the tone seem slanted?
- Support: Does the site list its sources? Is there contact information so you can ask questions about the source? Is there a way to corroborate and/or document claims made on the site?
Here are more sites that offer valuable criteria for evaluating online sources:
- Evaluating Internet Resources from Teacher Tap
- Criteria for Evaluating Internet Resources from the University of British Columbia
- Evaluating Research Sources from the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)
You can use the Internet for ideas for initial topic development and to fill in gaps in your research once you've used library sources. Just be sure to carefully scrutinize anything you find on the Internet to ensure it's appropriate to cite it in your paper.
Following is a small selection of appropriate places to conduct academic research on the Internet. Note that myriad additional helpful reference sites are available, and that your campus library's Website may offer links to the best of them:
- Google Scholar. This specialized version of the widely used Google search engine searches academic journal articles. You will likely find, however, that the vast majority of articles that appear in the search results are not accessible to you unless you pay for them. There's a good possibility you can get the same results by searching your library's databases, through which you probably can access the articles at no cost. Starting with your library's databases will likely save time. Using Google Scholar can be advantageous for uncovering articles that you can't find through a library database search. You can then ask your reference librarian how to obtain the article, such as through interlibrary loan. Occasionally you'll also find an article through Google Scholar that you can access directly, such as through the author's web site.
- Bartleby.com is a huge, easy-to-use collection of reference works -- encyclopedias, dictionaries, indexes, fiction and nonfiction books, quotations, and more.
- Newspaper and magazine portals: You can access many newspaper and magazine articles at portal sites, such as MagPortal.com, FindArticles.com, OnlineNewspapers.com, Newslink for Newsletters, and web sites for individual magazines and newspapers. Note that some publishers require a fee for articles.
- News sites: You may sometimes find it useful to locate current, topical information for your research at such sites as CNN.com and MSN.com.
- Library sites: The Internet Public Library, which began in 1995 as a class project, is a huge repository of information, as is the Library of Congress site. Both offer "Ask a Librarian" features. Note that some libraries other than your campus library allow access to their resources and can be perused at sites like Libweb.
Final Thoughts on Mastering Sources for College Papers
It's easy to get overwhelmed with all the sources out there for research. It's also easy to under-research an assignment through lack of awareness of available sources. Both problems are easier to manage when you know the major categories of research sources and how to find and evaluate them.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She is also Creative Director and Associate Publisher at Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.