You’ll probably engage the subscription article databases at different points in the process. For example, imagine you’ve been assigned a research paper that can focus on any topic relevant to the course. Imagine further that you don’t have a clue about where to start and aren’t entirely sure what counts as an appropriate topic in this discipline. A great approach is to find the top journals in the specific field of your course and browse through recent issues to see what people are publishing on. For example, when I assign an open-topic research paper in my Introduction to Sociology course, I suggest that students looking for a topic browse recent issues of Social Problems or American Journal of Sociology and find an article that looks interesting. They’ll have a topic and—booyah!—their first source. An instructor of a class on kinesiology might recommend browsing Human Movement Science, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, or Perceptual and Motor Skills.
When you have a topic and are looking for a set of sources, your biggest challenge is finding the right keywords. You’ll never find the right sources without them. You’ll obviously start with words and phrases from the assignment prompt, but you can’t stop there. As explained above, lower tier sources (such as Wikipedia) or the top-tier sources you already have are great for identifying alternative keywords, and librarians and other library staff are also well practiced at finding new approaches to try. Librarians can also point you to the best databases for your topic as well.
As you assess your evidence and further develop your thesis through the writing process, you may need to seek additional sources. For example, imagine you’re writing a paper about the added risks adolescents face when they have experienced their parents’ divorce. As you synthesize the evidence about negative impacts, you begin to wonder if scholars have documented some positive impacts as well.10 Thus you delve back into the literature to look for more articles, find some more concepts and keywords (such as “resiliency”), assess new evidence, and revise your thinking to account for these broader perspectives. Your instructor may have asked you to turn in a bibliography weeks before the final paper draft. You can check with your professor, but he or she is probably perfectly fine with you seeking additional sources as your thinking evolves. That’s how scholars write.
Finding good sources is a much more creative task than it seems on the face of it. It’s an extended problem-solving exercise, an iterative cycle of questions and answers. Go ahead and use Wikipedia to get broadly informed if you want. It won’t corrupt your brain. But use it, and all other sources, strategically. You should eventually arrive at a core set of Tier 1 sources that will enable you to make a well informed and thoughtful argument in support of your thesis. It’s also a good sign when you find yourself deciding that some of the first sources you found are no longer relevant to your thesis; that likely means that you have revised and specified your thinking and are well on your way to constructing the kind of self-driven in-depth analysis that your professor is looking for.