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GEG 242: Research Methods in Geography: Types of Sources

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  • Exhibits –poll data, transcribed interviews, text of public laws or court opinions, historical documents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.

Examples: Scholarly? Primary? Secondary?

Is it scholarly?

Often you will be expected to use "scholarly" or "peer-reviewed" or "academic" sources. How can you tell whether a source is scholarly?

Examples to consider:

Is it primary? secondary?

You may be asked to use "primary” or “secondary” scholarly sources. How can you tell whether a source is primary or secondary?

Examples to consider:

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.

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