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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

As you work with particular sources, be sure you are analyzing the source itself to understand why it was written or created, who wrote it, what their expertise is, and who the intended audience is. These kinds of questions help you figure out if you're using the appropriate sources for any given information task. Use the information below to reflect further on your sources: 

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  • Exhibits –poll data, transcribed interviews, text of public laws or court opinions, historical documents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; these types of sources are usually non-scholarly (sometimes we call them "popular")
  • Subject experts who write for other experts; these types of sources are almost always scholarly. Experts sometimes write non-scholarly pieces for newspapers, magazines or blogs about their topic for a general audience.
  • 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)

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 author usually has the highest degree in their field (like Ph.D.).
  • The audience is other researchers, scientists, or scholars, (as well as students in a given field), so the language is fairly complex and assumes a level of sophistication. 
  • It includes references to the work of other researchers. Look for bibliographic notes and/or a works cited page.
  • Scholarly sources are usually published by academic publishers (like Oxford University Press); articles appear in scholarly journals, often with titles like Journal of ....

Though many databases let you limit a search to scholarly or peer reviewed 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.

Peer review means the source has been reviewed prior to publication (usually without the reviewers knowing who wrote the source and vice versa); reviewers will then recommend if the work should be published. Many - but not all - scholarly sources have been peer reviewed. To check if your scholarly article has been peer reviewed, you can visit the journal's website.

Primary? Secondary?

The term "primary source" is defined differently by various 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. 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 tertiary 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.

For more about primary sources, check out our guide to primary sources available in our library.

Types of Sources

People communicate in all kinds of different information packages. Here are some of the most common ones you will encounter, along with ideas on whether or not they are scholarly: 

Source Type Scholarly or Non-scholarly
Book Books can be either scholarly or not; depending on who wrote it and the audience. Novels are not considered scholarly sources. Use the information in the "Scholarly Sources" box on this page for more help.
Chapter in an edited book Edited volumes are usually scholarly books edited by an expert, who then invites other experts to contribute chapters on a given subject. These are a gold mines for research, as you have a number of experts in one volume talking about your topic. Each chapter is considered a separate source.
Articles Articles can be either scholarly or not. Scholars communicate through journal articles, publishing studies in academic journals. Non-scholarly articles appear in magazines like PeopleRunners World, and the Atlantic, as well as newspapers. Experts can write for both scholarly and more popular sources. Use the "Scholarly Sources" box to further identify the kind of article you have.

There are many, many other kinds of information packages, too, including the ones listed below. 

  • Websites
  • Audio & visual 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

Locating Various Types of Sources

Now that you're more familiar with the types of sources you may encounter, you may be wondering how to go about finding them. 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:
    • Try some of the recommended databases on the Articles tab on this guide.
    • You can also search Google Scholar for academic articles, too. Use the Tracking Down Materials tab for help on accessing articles that aren't full text on Google Scholar.
    • Search the library catalog to find books; we have print books and ebooks. The Books tab also explains how to search for and order books at other libraries. 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.
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