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10.4: Strategies for Gathering Information

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    Now that you have planned your research project, you are ready to begin the research. This phase can be both exciting and challenging. As you read this section, you will learn ways to locate sources efficiently, so you have enough time to read the sources, take notes, and think about how to use the information.

    Of course, the technological advances of the past few decades—particularly the rise of online media—mean that, as a twenty-first-century student, you have countless sources of information available at your fingertips. But how can you tell whether a source is reliable? This section will discuss strategies for evaluating sources critically so that you can be a media-savvy researcher.

    In this section, you will locate and evaluate resources for your paper and begin taking notes. As you read, begin gathering print and electronic resources, identify at least eight to ten sources by the time you finish the chapter, and begin taking notes on your research findings.

    Locating Useful Resources

    When you chose a paper topic and determined your research questions, you conducted preliminary research to stimulate your thinking. Your research proposal included some general ideas for how to go about your research—for instance, interviewing an expert in the field or analyzing the content of popular magazines. You may even have identified a few potential sources. Now it is time to conduct a more focused, systematic search for informative primary and secondary sources.

    Using Primary and Secondary Sources

    Knowing the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources is very important in terms of knowing how to evaluate and use sources for research papers.

    Primary Sources

    Figure: by RedRecords on Pexels

    Primary sources are sources that are first hand. In other words, you are working with the actual data. They include:

    • Data (from data gathering websites, such as the Census Bureau),
    • Interviews,
    • Diaries and letters, and
    • Other historical documents
    • Websites of government agencies and organizations that collect data.

    For example, if you were writing a paper about the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, the text of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights would be a primary source. You may collect primary sources yourself, or a primary source may be the actual “data” that other people have collected. The difference between a primary and a secondary source is that -- with a primary source -- you are working with information that no one else has interpreted for you. You do that initial work yourself. You also have the chance to evaluate the quality of the data and determine if it is of high enough quality to work with. If you determine that is, primary sources are the best, most credible source to work with provided there were no problems with the way the data collection was set up (i.e., biased surveys, inconsistent collection, too small of a sample).

    Secondary Sources

    Figure: by Rishabh Sharma on Unsplash.

    Secondary sources are those in which the data/information has been interpreted and edited once. Typical examples include research papers, research-based books, and some newspaper articles (those that are only dealing with primary sources, such as interviews). Secondary sources are the foundation for academic research because the whole point of research is to grow knowledge. We grow knowledge by building on other people’s work most of the time. This is part of the reason we cite – because we are acknowledging whose work we are building upon. Most research papers are a combination of primary and secondary sources. Often, a writer must set up a background based on their own and others’ previous work to justify their current work both theoretically and in terms of their methods (how they are going to conduct their own research). Secondary sources are reliable to the extent that:

    • The interpretations the writers make are logically sound,
    • The authors do not have any conflicts of interest (i.e., a study about the health benefits of wine paid for by the wine industry), and
    • The data are statistically and/or historically valid and collected in an appropriate manner.

    Secondary sources discuss, interpret, analyze, consolidate, or otherwise rework information from primary sources. For example, in researching for a paper about the First Amendment, you might read articles about legal cases that involved First Amendment rights, or editorials expressing commentary on the First Amendment. These sources would be considered secondary sources because they are one step removed from the primary source of information.

    The following are examples of secondary sources:

    • Journal and some magazine articles
    • Some newspaper articles
    • Biographical books
    • Television documentaries
    • Websites that at interpret data gathered by themselves or others (for example, the USGS website's articles about why earthquakes happen).

    It’s not always possible to determine if a secondary source is completely credible given that we don’t usually have access to the initial data, but we should always ask certain questions about our secondary sources to make sure they are as credible as possible (see below).

    One very famous example of a non-credible secondary source was a paper, published in a very credible scientific journal, that linked autism to some of the ingredients in childhood vaccines. The result of this seemingly credible study was that many parents stopped vaccinating their children out of fear of autism. The result on society was an increase in childhood diseases, such as measles and whooping cough, that had almost been wiped out in the U.S. and elsewhere. Other scientists tried to replicate the results of the study, but they could not (validating results is also part of academic, especially scientific, inquiry). This failure to replicate the results called into question the validity of the original study. The original author and the journal recanted the study, so this relationship between vaccines and autism has now been debunked.

    Tertiary Sources

    Tertiary sources are those sources that have already been interpreted by two people. These sources are not nearly as reliable as primary and secondary sources because it is nearly impossible for a reader/listener to determine if the interpretation others have made is logical and accurate/appropriate. Common examples of tertiary sources are magazine articles in which an author uses a number of secondary sources or, lately, newspaper articles that cite other newspaper articles rather than an original source. Blogs are another common tertiary source, and they are rarely credible enough to include as a source for academic writing. (However, some academic researchers do have their own blogs, and if their work is generally considered credible, so are their blogs). Tertiary sources are like rumors – you have to take them with “a grain of salt.” Many times, tertiary sources will also be filled with emotive language to get you to feel a certain way about the topic. This is a clue that your source may not be credible enough.

    What Kind of Sources Should I Use?

    Your topic and purpose determine whether you must use both primary and secondary sources in your paper. Ask yourself which sources are most likely to provide the information that will answer your research questions. If you are writing a research paper about reality television shows, you will need to use some reality shows as a primary source, but secondary sources, such as a reviewer’s critique, are also important. If you are writing about the health effects of nicotine, you will probably want to read the published results of scientific studies, but secondary sources, such as magazine articles discussing the outcome of a recent study, may also be helpful.

    Once you have thought about what kinds of sources are most likely to help you answer your research questions, you may begin your search for print and electronic resources. The challenge here is to conduct your search efficiently. Writers use strategies to help them find the sources that are most relevant and reliable while steering clear of sources that will not be useful.

    Print Resources versus Electronic Resources

    These days, there really isn't much difference in how you find your resources, whether they are print or electronic. Either way, you will likely search for them digitally. The only difference is whether you read the read or watch the resource online or hold it and read a print version. Keep in mind, however, that some potentially useful sources may be available only in print form. Others may be only available electronically. The following table lists different types of resources available at public, college, and university libraries.

    Table 10.4.1: Library Resources

    Resource Type Description Example(s)
    Reference works

    Reference works provide a summary of information about a particular topic. Almanacs, encyclopedias, atlases, medical reference books, and scientific abstracts are examples of reference works. In some cases, reference books may not be checked out of a library; rather, they must be read there.

    Note that reference works are many steps removed from original primary sources and are often brief, so these should be used only as a starting point when you gather information.

    • The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2010
    • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association
    Nonfiction books Nonfiction books provide in-depth coverage of a topic. Trade books, biographies, and how-to guides are usually written for a general audience. Scholarly books and scientific studies are usually written for an audience that has specialized knowledge of a topic.
    • The Low-Carb Solution: A Slimmer You in 30 Days
    • Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins: Exploring the Relationship Between Macronutrient Ratios and Health Outcomes
    Periodicals and news sources These sources are published at regular intervals—daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Newspapers, magazines, and academic journals are examples. Some periodicals provide articles on subjects of general interest while others are more specialized.
    • New York Times
    • PC Magazine
    • JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association
    Government publications Federal, state, and local government agencies publish information on a variety of topics. Government publications include reports, legislation, court documents, public records, statistics, studies, guides, programs, and forms.
    • The Census 2000 Profile
    • The Business Relocation Package published by the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce
    Business and nonprofit publications Businesses and nonprofit organizations produce publications designed to market a product, provide background about the organization, provide information on topics connected to the organization, or promote a cause. Occasionally they also collect statistics. These publications include reports, newsletters, advertisements, manuals, brochures, and other print documents.
    • A company’s instruction manual explaining how to use a specific software program
    • A news release published by the Sierra Club
    Historical documents Some libraries, particularly university libraries, hold special collection related to a particular historical event, a particular historical or literary figure, and other special topics.
    • John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
    • The Archer Collection of Historical Childrens' Books at J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco State University

    Many of these resources are also widely available in electronic format. In addition to the resources noted in the table, library holdings -- especially university libraries -- may include primary texts such as historical documents, letters, and diaries.

    Writing at Work

    Businesses, government organizations, and nonprofit organizations produce published materials that range from brief advertisements and brochures to lengthy, detailed reports. In many cases, producing these publications requires research. A corporation’s annual report may include research about economic or industry trends. A charitable organization may use information from research in materials sent to potential donors.

    Regardless of the industry you work in, you may be asked to assist in developing materials for publication. Often, incorporating research in these documents can make them more effective in informing or persuading readers


    As you gather information, strive for a balance of accessible, easy-to-read sources and more specialized, challenging sources. Relying solely on lightweight books and articles written for a general audience will drastically limit the range of useful, substantial information. On the other hand, restricting oneself to dense, scholarly works could make the process of researching extremely time-consuming and frustrating.

    Using Periodicals, Indexes, and Databases

    These days, library catalogs are almost exclusively online and integrate many sub-databases, so you can generally go to one place to locate book-length sources, magazine and journal articles, CDs, DVDs, and audio books. Generally speaking, though, they don't search the Internet, so you would need to conduct a separate search for primary sources you might want from the Internet. You can generally also find secondary sources that appear on the Internet in your library database. Always search here first, especially for journal articles, because you don't have to pay for these resources if you access them through your library whereas Google Scholar may charge more than $25.00 to access one article. To locate shorter sources, such as magazine and journal articles, you will need to use a periodical index or an online periodical database. These tools index the articles that appear in newspapers, magazines, and journals. Like catalogs, they provide publication information about an article and often allow users to access a summary or even the full text of the article.

    Sometimes your library database may re-direct you to the sub-database that you may need to search again to find the actual article you want. This is especially true for specialty topics. It's a good idea to copy the exact title of the article so you can paste the title into the search bar of any sub-database that you may need to access.

    The table, “Commonly Used Indexes and Databases,” describes some commonly used indexes and databases to which your library's database may link.

    Table 10.4.2 - Commonly Used Indexes and Databases

    Resource Format Contents
    Business Source Complete Online Database that archives business-related content from magazines and journals
    EBSCOhost Online General database that provides access to articles on a wide variety of topics
    MEDLINE, PubMed Online Databases that archive articles in medicine and health
    New York Times Index Online Guide to articles published in the New York Times
    ProQuest Online Database that archives content from newspapers, magazines, and dissertations
    Psychlit, PsycINFO Online Databases that archive content from journals in psychology and psychiatry

    Using Internet Search Engines Efficiently

    When faced with the challenge of writing a research paper, some students rely on popular search engines as their first source of information. Typing a keyword or phrase into a search engine instantly pulls up links to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of related websites—what could be easier? Unfortunately, despite its apparent convenience, this research strategy has the following drawbacks to consider:

    • Results do not always appear in order of reliability. The first few hits that appear in search results may include sites whose content is not always reliable, such as online encyclopedias that can be edited by any user. Because websites are created by third parties, the search engine cannot tell you which sites have accurate information.
    • Results may be too numerous for you to use. The amount of information available on the web is far greater than the amount of information housed within a particular library or database. Realistically, if your web search pulls up thousands of hits, you will not be able to visit every site—and the most useful sites may be buried deep within your search results.

    A general web search can provide a helpful overview of a topic and may pull up genuinely useful resources. To get the most out of a search engine, however, use strategies to make your search more efficient. Use multiple keywords and Boolean operators to limit your results. Click on the Advanced Search link on the homepage to find additional options for streamlining your search. Depending on the specific search engine you use, the following options may be available:

    • Limit results to websites that have been updated within a particular time frame.
    • Limit results by language or country.
    • Limit results to scholarly works available online.
    • Limit results by file type.
    • Limit results to a particular domain type, such as .edu (school and university sites) or .gov (government sites). This is a quick way to filter out commercial sites, which can often lead to more objective results.

    Use the Bookmarks or Favorites feature of your web browser to save and organize sites that look promising. If you end up find an article and the search engine tries to charge you to access it, try searching for the article in your college or local public library, where you can probably access it for free.

    Choosing Key Words

    Even if you use print sources, most likely you will need to use an electronic library database to find where they are. To use a library database well, you want to be able to use "key words" that will lead you to the most relevant resources. To find print resources efficiently, first identify the major concepts and terms you will use to conduct your search—that is, your "key words." These, along with the research questions you identified, will help you find sources using any of the following methods:

    • Using the library’s online catalog or card catalog
    • Using periodicals indexes and databases
    • Consulting a reference librarian

    You probably already have some keywords in mind based on your preliminary research and writing. Another way to identify useful keywords is to visit the Library of Congress’s website at This site allows you to search for a topic and see the related subject headings used by the Library of Congress, including broader terms, narrower terms, and related terms. Other libraries use these terms to classify materials. Knowing the most-used terms will help you speed up your keyword search. Here are some additional tips for working with "key words."

    • Start off with key words that are fairly specific. For instance, rather than “global warming,” you might use “temperature trends” or “sea level rise.”
    • Check your spelling.
    • If you don’t get enough results from your key word search, broaden or generalize your key words.
    • You also might be limiting your results too much with specific word suffixes. Try using an asterisk to tell the computer to search the root word with all the endings. For instance warm* would find any article with “warmer” “warming” and “warm.”
    • If you get too many results from your search, try to be more specific about what you are searching for. Be more specific in the exact words you use.
    • Try limiting the time period of the articles in your results list. Your instructor may advise that you should only use secondary sources that are less than ten years old, depending on your topic.
    • Include more specific fields such as “author” or “title” rather than any part of the text.
    • Use correct Boolean search terminology, such as “sea level rise” AND “Borneo,” so that the results are only for sea level rise in Borneo and not elsewhere.
    • Combine keywords with AND or + to limit results to citations that include both keywords—for example, diet + nutrition.
    • Combine keywords with NOT or to search for the first word without the second. This can help you eliminate irrelevant results based on words that are similar to your search term. For example, searching for obesity NOT childhood locates materials on obesity but excludes materials on childhood obesity.
    • Enclose a phrase in quotation marks to search for an exact phrase, such as “morbid obesity.”
    • Use parentheses to direct the order of operations in a search string. For example, since Type II diabetes is also known as adult-onset diabetes, you could search (Type II OR adult-onset) AND diabetes to limit your search results to articles on this form of the disease.
    • Think of synonyms for your key words and try searching for those.
    • You might also break up your topic into more specific concepts and search using key words for those more specific concepts.

    Exercise 1

    Make a list of five types of print resources you could use to find information about your research topic. Include at least one primary source. Be as specific as possible—if you have a particular resource or type of resource in mind, describe it. Miguel used the Library of Congress site to identify general terms he could use to find resources about low-carb dieting. His search helped him identify potentially useful keywords and related topics, such as carbohydrates in human nutrition, glycemic index, and carbohydrates—metabolism. These terms helped Jorge refine his search


    If you are still having trouble finding relevant sources after trying the above tips, consult a librarian to see whether you need to modify your search terms. They are happy to help you.

    Exercise 2

    Visit the Library of Congress’s website at and conduct searches on a few terms related to your topic.

    1. Review your search results and identify six to eight additional terms you might use when you conduct your research.
    2. Print out the search results or save the results to your research folder on your computer or portable storage device.

    Consulting a Reference Librarian

    Sifting through library stacks and database search results to find the information you need can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. If you are not sure how you should begin your search, or if it is yielding too many or too few results, you are not alone. Many students find this process challenging although it does get easier with experience. One way to learn better search strategies is to consult a reference librarian.

    Reference librarians are intimately familiar with the systems libraries use to organize and classify information. They can help you locate a particular book in the library stacks, steer you toward useful reference works, and provide tips on how to use databases and other electronic research tools. Take the time to see what resources you can find on your own, but if you encounter difficulties, ask for help. Many university librarians hold virtual office hours and are available for online chatting.

    Exercise 3

    Visit your library’s website or consult with a reference librarian to determine what periodicals indexes or databases would be useful for your research. Depending on your topic, you may rely on a general news index, a specialized index for a particular subject area, or both. Search the catalog for your topic and related keywords. Print out or bookmark your search results.

    1. Identify at least one to two relevant periodicals, indexes, or databases.
    2. Conduct a keyword search to find potentially relevant articles on your topic.
    3. Save your search results. If the index you are using provides article summaries or abstracts, read these to determine how useful the articles are likely to be.
    4. Identify at least three to five articles to review more closely. If the full article is available online, set aside time to read it. If not, plan to visit our library within the next few days to locate the articles you need.

    Determining Whether a Source Is Relevant

    Sometimes an article's title may seem like it could be right for your purposes, but you aren't sure. The quickest way to decide whether you should continue to consider it (especially if it is a journal or indexed article) is to read the abstract. The abstract is a summary of the article, and it will give you a better idea of what the article is about. Do this while you are searching to avoid spending time downloading articles needlessly.

    Still, at this point in your research process, you may have identified dozens of potential sources. It is easy for writers to get so caught up in checking out books and printing out/bookmarking articles that they forget to ask themselves how they will use these resources in their research. Now is a good time to get a little ruthless. Reading and taking notes takes time and energy, so you will want to focus on the most relevant sources.

    To weed through your stack of books and articles, skim their contents. Read quickly with your research questions and subtopics in mind. The table, “Tips for Skimming Books and Articles” explains how to skim to get a quick sense of what topics are covered. If a book or article is not especially relevant, put it aside. You can always come back to it later if you need to.

    Table 10.4.3 -- Tips for Skimming Books and Articles

    Tips for Skimming Books Tips for Skimming Articles
    1. Read the dust jacket and table of contents for a broad overview of the topics covered.
    2. Use the index to locate more specific topics and see how thoroughly they are covered.
    3. Flip through the book and look for subtitles or key terms that correspond to your research.
    1. Skim the introduction and conclusion for summary material.
    2. Skim through subheadings and text features such as sidebars.
    3. Look for keywords related to your topic.
    4. Journal articles often begin with an abstract or summary of the contents. Read it to determine the article’s relevance to your research.

    Other Information Sources


    With so many print and electronic media readily available, it is easy to overlook another valuable information resource: other people. Consider whether you could use a person or group as a primary source. For instance, you might interview a professor who has expertise in a particular subject, a worker within a particular industry, or a representative from a political organization. Interviews can be a great way to get firsthand information.

    To get the most out of an interview, you will need to plan ahead. Contact your subject early in the research process and explain your purpose for requesting an interview. Prepare detailed, open-ended questions. Open-ended questions, rather than questions with simple yes-or-no answers, are more likely to lead to an in-depth discussion. Schedule a time to meet, and be sure to obtain your subject’s permission to record the interview. Take careful notes and be ready to ask follow-up questions based on what you learn. Also ask the person you are interviewing if you may use their name in your paper (if you end up quoting them) or if they would prefer to be cited anonymously ("Reading and Note taking for Research Papers" later in this chapter).


    If scheduling an in-person meeting is difficult, consider arranging a telephone or video phone call interview or asking your subject to respond to your questions via e-mail. Recognize that any of these formats takes time and effort. Be prompt and courteous, avoid going over the allotted interview time, and be flexible if your subject needs to reschedule. Always send a thank you note or email when your interview is complete.

    Writing at Work

    Informational interviews are a useful way to find out about an industry, figure out whether you may enjoy a particular line of work, and make contacts. It is primary research for your own career. Informational interviews can be used at any point in your career, whether you are just starting out or you are thinking about your next move. Prepare for an informational interview just as you would if you were writing a research paper. Have some background information about the industry, company, and person. Form some detailed open-ended questions. In this case, you may not want to record the interview, but just take notes on a pad of paper. Keep the interview at no more than one-half hour, and be sure to send a thank you note or email within a day of the interview.

    Using Media as a Primary Source

    Depending on your research question, you may want to use various media as a primary source. Social networking sites (ensure the posts are public), online chat rooms and discussion forums, videos of newscasts, blogs (web logs), vlogs (video logs), and videos on YouTube may all be primary sources of information if your research goal is to analyze a topic and how it is portrayed in the media. Be very careful to gather electronic sources that show a variety of viewpoints because it can be difficult to avoid confirmation bias (choosing support that reflects your own viewpoints) when choosing among electronic sources. Remember, also, that each primary source is one data point, and you cannot generalize (extrapolate) from just one data point. To be able to make a generalization from primary electronic data, you would need to ensure you have a large enough sample size to say something is correlated. In most cases, you won't have enough data to generalize, so you can simply bring in your observations as an additional source of information that supports other work that has already been able to make a general point about your topic.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 10.4: Strategies for Gathering Information is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .