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Doing Research: Source Types

A Way to Think About Sources

"Sources are people talking to other people." Doug Downs

Sources Overview

Sources have different functions (BEAM)

  • Background sources – Wikipedia, textbooks, specialized encyclopedias, review articles
  • Exhibits –poll data, transcribed interviews, text of public laws or court opinions, historical documents
  • Arguments – works that propose a thesis and develop it with evidence
  • Methods – works that propose how to think about something; theory or methodology is the focus

There are different authors of information

  • Journalists and other professional writers who report the news or write books and articles about topics from a non-specialist perspective
  • Experts who write for other experts (a scientist, a historian) and sometimes for non-experts
  • Artists who create tangible expressions of their ideas
  • Members of the public who interpret and express ideas publicly  

There are different audiences for publications

  • General readers who want to know factual information about a topic
  • General readers who are interested in opinions and commentary
  • Members of a particular profession such as teachers, lawyers, or engineers who share common interests
  • Scholars and scientists who want to know the latest research findings (and reviews of research)

There are different packages of information

  • Books (scholarly or commercial)
  • Chapters in books (especially common in scholarly publications)
  • Journals, magazines, newspapers
  • Websites
  • Audio and video files
  • Conference papers (sometimes published as books, published online, or unpublished)
  • Laws (statutes, court opinions, regulations) and other government documents (hearings, bills, reports)
  • Press releases, reports, studies, FAQs, etc., produced by nonprofits and corporations
  • Data sets
  • Unpublished records, like journals, personal papers, items you would find in the college's archives, stuff in your desk drawer, a box of records taken from an office by investigators

Investigate Your Sources

Who wrote it? A journalist? An academic scholar? A person who has expertise of some sort? 

When was it written? What effect does its age or currency have on its value to you?

Why was it written? What audience did the author have in mind? What are they trying to do with this document - persuade, inform, further our knowledge by publishing new research findings? 

Where did they get their information? What evidence do they present? Do they explain the sources of their information?

How did they arrive at their conclusions? Did they use appropriate methods to get there? Did they misunderstand anything or leave something important out?

What have other people said about this topic? How does this source fit in with the larger conversation?  

Locating Various Types of Sources

Here are tips on how to located various types of sources for your project - although the biggest tip is that if you hit any roadblocks, please ask a librarian for help.

  • To find scholarly sources, like journal articles and academic books, use a library database or search our catalog.
    • Try some of the recommended databases on the Articles tab on this guide.
    • You can also search Google scholar for academic articles, too. Be aware that Google is set up to drive you to publishers' websites, where they might ask you to pay to access the article. Never pay for an article! The Library can get it for you for free. Use the Tracking Down Materials tab for more information.
    • Search the library catalog to find books. You can look at excerpts for many books - and in some cases, entire books - through Google Books. You'll also find some scholarly articles in the catalog, too.
  • To find newspaper articles, use ProQuest US Newsstream to search current and back issues of most major US newspapers. Use Access World News for international papers. Both are listed under the Articles tab.
    • You can certainly Google to find newspapers but most papers have a strict paywall, meaning you'll need to pay to subscribe before you can access the papers. Instead, search the recommended databases to find the same content for free!
  • To find magazine articles, start with Academic Search Premier (listed under the Articles tab). As with newspapers, you can use Google but you will also probably hit a paywall for most titles.
  • To explore most other sources, ask yourself who might publish the kind of source you're looking for. Possibilities are endless, anything from nonprofits to companies to governments to professional associations to individuals.
    • The best place to start is Google. As you sort through results, pay attention to who wrote and published the source, the intended audience, the type of source, any claims it makes, etc. Be sure you are thinking critically about the source itself and how it may or may not inform your own understanding of the topic.
    • Contact a librarian for more ideas on how to access particular types of sources.

Scholarly Sources

Quite often you will be expected to use "scholarly" or "peer-reviewed" or "academic" sources. How can you tell whether a source is scholarly? Look for these indicators.

  • The author is a scientist or scholar, not a journalist. Usually you can find some note about where the author works, and more often than not it's at a college or university.
  • The audience is other researchers, scientists, or scholars, so the language is fairly complex and assumes a level of sophistication.
  • If an article, it is fairly long. It's rare for a scholarly article to be one or two pages.
  • It includes references to the work of other researchers.

Though many databases let you limit a search to scholarly articles, those limiters aren't foolproof. As an example, they will include book reviews, which are not reporting original research. Take a look at "Anatomy of a Scholarly Article" from North Carolina State University Library.

Primary? Secondary?

The term "primary source" is defined differently by different disciplines. In the humanities, a primary source is a historical document, such as a diary, memoir, a work of art, a news account published when an event was fresh - something from the historical period under examination, unfiltered by anyone else. In the sciences, a primary source is a scientist's write-up of their research that includes their methods and results, as opposed to science journalism or a summary of research (a "review article") that has been conducted to provide an overview of research on a given topic.

A secondary source is one that has already been analyzed by someone else. Moving even further from the unfiltered event is a teriary source such as a textbook or encyclopedia, that summarizes knowledge in general terms.

Using primary sources, whether in science or the humanities, helps a researcher get as close as possible to the subject under examination. Using primary sources can be a good way to point your reader to the raw materials of your ideas and provide an opportunity for you to do your own, original analysis.

To find historical primary sources, check out our guide to primary sources available in our library.

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