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6.1: What are the Different Types of Sources?

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    12071
  • Why is it that even the most informativeWikipediaarticles are still often considered illegitimate? What are good sources to use instead? Above all, follow your professor’s guidelines for choosing sources. He or she may have requirements for a certain number of articles, books, or websites you should include in your paper. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your professor’s requirements.

    The table below summarizes types of secondary sources in four tiers. All sources have their legitimate uses, but the top-tier ones are considered the most credible for academic work.

    Tier

    Type

    Content

    Uses

    How to find them

    1

    Peer-reviewed academic publications

    Rigorous research and analysis

    Provide strong evidence for claims and references to other high-quality sources

    Academic article databases from the library’s website

    2

    Reports, articles, and books from credible non-academic sources

    Well researched and even-handed descriptions of an event or state of the world

    Initial research on events or trends not yet analyzed in the academic literature; may reference important Tier 1 sources

    Websites of relevant government/nonprofit agencies or academic article databases from the library’s website

    3

    Short pieces from newspapers or credible websites

    Simple reporting of events, research findings, or policy changes

    Often point to useful Tier 2 or Tier 1 sources, may provide a factoid or two not found anywhere else

    StrategicGooglesearches or article databases including newspapers and magazines

    4

    Agenda-driven or uncertain pieces

    Mostly opinion, varying in thoughtfulness and credibility

    May represent a particular position within a debate; more often provide keywords and clues about higher quality sources

    Non-specificGooglesearches

    Tier 1: Peer-reviewed academic publications

    Sources from the mainstream academic literature include books and scholarly articles. Academic books generally fall into three categories: (1) textbooks written with students in mind, (2) academic books which give an extended report on a large research project, and (3) edited volumes in which each chapter is authored by different people.

    Scholarly articles appear in academic journals, which are published multiple times a year to share the latest research findings with scholars in the field. They’re usually sponsored by an academic society. To be published, these articles and books had to earn favorable anonymous evaluations by qualified scholars. Who are the experts writing, reviewing, and editing these scholarly publications? Your professors. We describe this process below. Learning how to read and use these sources is a fundamental part of being a college student.

    Tier 2: Reports, articles, and books from credible non-academic sources

    Some events and trends are too recent to appear in Tier 1 sources. Also, Tier 1 sources tend to be highly specific, and sometimes you need a more general perspective on a topic. Thus, Tier 2 sources can provide quality information that is more accessible to non-academics. There are three main categories.

    First, official reports from government agencies or major international institutions like the World Bank or the United Nations; these institutions generally have research departments staffed with qualified experts who seek to provide rigorous, even-handed information to decision-makers.

    Second, feature articles from major newspapers and magazines likeTheNew York Times, Wall Street Journal, London Times,orThe Economistare based on original reporting by experienced journalists (not press releases) and are typically 1500+ words in length.

    Third, there are some great books from non-academic presses that cite their sources; they’re often written by journalists. All three of these sources are generally well researched descriptions of an event or state of the world, undertaken by credentialed experts who generally seek to be even-handed. It is still up to you to judge their credibility. Your instructors, librarians, or writing center consultants can advise you on which sources in this category have the most credibility.

    Tier 3. Short pieces from periodicals or credible websites

    A step below the well-developed reports and feature articles that make up Tier 2 are the short tidbits that one finds in newspapers and magazines or credible websites. How short is a short news article? Usually, they’re just a couple paragraphs or less, and they’re often reporting on just one thing: an event, an interesting research finding, or a policy change. They don’t take extensive research and analysis to write, and many just summarize a press release written and distributed by an organization or business. They may describe corporate mergers, newly discovered diet-health links, or important school-funding legislation.

    You may want to cite Tier 3 sources in your paper if they provide an important factoid or two that isn’t provided by a higher-tier piece, but if the Tier 3 article describes a particular study or academic expert, your best bet is to find the journal article or book it is reporting on and use that Tier 1 source instead. Sometimes you can find the original journal article by putting the author’s name into a library database.

    What counts as a credible website in this tier? You may need some guidance from instructors or librarians, but you can learn a lot by examining the person or organization providing the information (look for an “About” link on the website). For example, if the organization is clearly agenda-driven or not up-front about its aims and/or funding sources, then it definitely isn’t a source you want to cite as a neutral authority. Also look for signs of expertise. A tidbit about a medical research finding written by someone with a science background carries more weight than the same topic written by a policy analyst. These sources are sometimes uncertain, which is all the more reason to follow the trail to a Tier 1 or Tier 2 source whenever possible. The better the source, the more supported your paper will be.

    Tip

    It doesn’t matter how well supported or well written your paper is if you don’t cite your sources! A citing mistake or a failure to cite could lead to a failing grade on the paper or in the class. For more information about citations, see Chapter 7.

    Tier 4. Agenda-driven or pieces from unknown sources

    This tier is essentially everything else. These types of sources—especiallyWikipedia—can be helpful in identifying interesting topics, positions within a debate, keywords to search, and, sometimes, higher-tier sources on the topic. They often play a critically important role in the early part of the research process, but they generally aren’t (and shouldn’t be) cited in the final paper.

    Exercise 1

    Based on what you already know or what you can find from Tier 4 sources likeWikipedia, start a list of the people, organizations, sources, and keywords that seem most relevant to your topic. You may need this background information when you start searching for more scholarly sources later on.

    Tip

    Try to locate a mixture of different source types for your assignments. Some of your sources can be more popular, like Tier 3 websites or encyclopedia articles, but you should also try to find at least a few Tier 1 or Tier 2 articles from journals or reputable magazines/newspapers.

    Key Takeaways

    • There are several different categories of academic and popular sources. Scholarly sources are usually required in academic papers.
    • It’s important to understand your professor’s requirements and look for sources that fill those requirements. Also, try to find a variety of different source types to help you fully understand your topic.
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