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7.4: Find Expert Sources

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    Where Can You Find the Best Sources?

    Now that you have planned your research project, you are ready to begin the research. As you read this section, you will learn ways to locate sources efficiently so you will have enough time to read the sources, take notes, and think about how to use them in your research paper. But how can you tell whether a source is reliable?

    Depending on your assignment, you will likely search for sources by using

    • A library’s online catalog to identify print books, ebooks, periodicals, DVDs, and other items in the library’s collection. The catalog will help you find journals by title, but it will not list the journal’s articles by title or author.
    • Online databases to locate articles, ebooks, streaming videos, images, and other electronic resources. These databases can also help you identify articles in print periodicals.
    • Open access databases which are peer-reviewed journals with articles freely available to the public.
    • Internet search engines to locate sources freely available on the web if your instructor allows this.

    Your instructor, as well as writing tutors and librarians at your college, can help you determine which of these methods will best fit your project and learn to use the search tools available to you. You can also find research guides and tutorials on library websites that can help you identify appropriate research tools and learn how to use them. As you gather sources, you will need to examine them with a critical eye. Smart researchers continually ask themselves two questions: “Is this source relevant to my purpose?” and “Is this source reliable?” The first question will help you avoid wasting valuable time reading sources that stray too far from your specific topic and research questions. The second question will help you find accurate, trustworthy sources.

    Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources

    When you chose a paper topic and determined your research questions, you conducted preliminary research to stimulate your thinking. Now it is time to conduct a more focused, systematic search for informative primary and secondary sources. Writers classify research resources in two categories: primary sources and secondary sources.

    Primary sources are direct, firsthand sources of information or 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. Other primary sources include the following:

    • Data
    • Works of visual art
    • Literary texts
    • Historical documents such as diaries or letters
    • Autobiographies, interviews, or other personal accounts

    Secondary sources discuss, interpret, analyze, consolidate, or otherwise rework information from primary sources. In researching 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:

    • Literary criticism
    • Biographies
    • Reviews
    • Documentaries
    • News reports

    Your topic, purpose, and assignment requirements determine whether you must cite 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. For instance, if a writer’s purpose is to inform readers about how the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation has affected elementary education in the United States, then a Time magazine article on the subject would be a secondary source. However, suppose the writer’s purpose is to analyze how the news media has portrayed the effects of NCLB. In that case, articles about the legislation in news magazines like Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report would be primary sources. They provide firsthand examples of the media coverage the writer is analyzing. If your purpose is to research how educators have analyzed the changes, scholarly journals would be primary sources of their findings.

    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 sources. The challenge here is to conduct your search both efficiently and thoroughly. Use strategies to find the sources that are most relevant and reliable while steering clear of sources that will not be useful. Good research requires critical thinking about, and often revising, your plans and ideas.

    When you search for periodicals, be sure to distinguish among different types. Mass-market publications, such as newspapers and popular magazines, differ from scholarly publications in their accessibility, audience, and purpose. Newspapers and magazines are written for a broader audience than scholarly journals. Their content is usually quite accessible and easy to read. Trade magazines that target readers within a particular industry may presume the reader has background knowledge, but these publications are still reader-friendly for a broader audience. Their purpose is to inform and, often, to entertain or persuade readers as well.

    Scholarly or academic journals are written for a much smaller and more expert audience. The creators of these publications are experts in the subject and assume that most of their readers are already familiar with the main topic of the journal. The target audience is also highly educated. Informing is the primary purpose of a scholarly journal. While a journal article may advance an agenda or advocate a position, the content will still be presented in an objective style and formal tone.

    Because of these differences, scholarly journals are more challenging to read. That doesn’t mean you should avoid them. On the contrary, they can provide in-depth information unavailable elsewhere. Because knowledgeable professionals carefully review the content before publication in a process called “peer-review,” scholarly journals are far more reliable than much of the information available in popular media. Your professor may require you to use only peer-reviewed sources in an academic paper.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Types of Sources, Uses, and Content

    Tier Type Content Uses Search Process
    1 Peer-reviewed academic publications Professional research and analysis Provide strong evidence for claims and references to other professional sources Library catalogs and academic databases; Google Scholar; Open Access databases
    2 Reports, articles, and books from credible non-academic sources Well-researched and reviewed non-biased descriptions of an issue Initial research on events or trends not yet researched in academic literature; may reference academic sources Websites of relevant agencies; Google searched using .gov; academic databases
    3 Short articles from newspapers or credible websites Non-biased reporting of events, research, or policy May reference primary or secondary sources or provide current information Databases for newspapers and magazines
    4 Biased or uncertain articles Opinion-based and varying credibility May represent a partisan position; may provide reviews of information contained in more credible sources Open Google searches
    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Video Overview of Sources