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7.8: Using the Right Sources for Your Project

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    Selecting the right type of source for your information needs is an important aspect of researched writing. The right source can provide evidence and add credibility to your position, but the wrong source can undermine your position. The context of your project is key to choosing the right source; even a completely specious source can be the right source if it’s evidence in support of a paper about specious sources. For most of your projects though, you’ll likely be looking for high-quality sources, especially scholarly sources.

    Types of Evidence in Academic Arguments

    All academic writers use evidence to support their claims. However, as writing tasks vary across disciplinary fields, different types of evidence are required. Often a combination of different types of evidence is required in order to adequately support and develop a point.

    To clarify, evidence is what a writer uses to support or defend his or her argument, and only valid and credible evidence is enough to make an argument strong.

    Evidence is not simply “facts.” Evidence is not simply “quotes.”

    As you develop your research-supported essay, consider not only what types of evidence might support your ideas but also what types of evidence will be considered valid or credible according to the academic discipline or academic audience for which you are writing. The following are some examples of credible evidence by academic discipline:

    Evidence in the Humanities: Literature, Art, Film, Music, Philosophy

    • Scholarly essays that analyze original works;
    • Details from an image, a film, or other work of art;
    • Passages from a musical composition;
    • Passages of text, including poetry.

    Evidence in the Humanities: History

    • Primary sources (photos, letters, maps, official documents, etc.);
    • Other books or articles that interpret primary sources or other evidence.

    Evidence in the Social Sciences: Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, Anthropology

    • Books or articles that interpret data and results from other people’s original experiments or studies;
    • Results from one’s own field research (including interviews, surveys, observations, etc.);
    • Data from one’s own experiments;
    • Statistics derived from large studies.

    Evidence in the Sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Physics

    • Data from the author of the paper’s own experiments;
    • Books or articles that interpret data and results from other people’s original experiments or studies.

    What remains consistent no matter the discipline in which you are writing, however, is that evidence NEVER speaks for itself. Quality evidence must be integrated into your own argument or claim in order to demonstrate that the evidence supports your thesis. In addition, be alert to evidence that seems to contradict your claims or offers a counterargument to it. Rebutting that counter argument can be powerful evidence for your claim. You can also make evidence that isn’t there an integral part of your argument, too. If you can’t find the evidence you think you need, ask yourself why it seems to be lacking, or if its absence adds a new dimension to your thinking about the topic. Remember, evidence is not the piling up of facts or quotes. Evidence is only one component of a strong, well supported, well argued, and well written composition.

    Scholarly Sources

    While reading academic/scholarly journal articles can be one of the more intimidating aspects of college-level research projects, there are several aspects to the purpose, format, and style of scholarly/academic journal articles that are rather straightforward and patterned. Knowing the template that scholarly articles follow can enhance your reading and comprehension experience and make these intimidating reading materials much less daunting. Moreover, understanding the purpose of scholarly publication can help you to understand what matters most in these articles.

    The term scholarly is one that can be quite confusing. Some professors will use it broadly to mean any source that is reputable and academic in nature, while other professors will use it more narrowly to refer specifically to sources that have gone through a peer review process. Generally speaking, sources may fall on a spectrum between popular and scholarly, with peer-reviewed research articles and monographs fitting most clearly under the scholarly category. Always check with your professor to be sure how they are defining scholarly sources for the purposes of your class.

    Basic Format

    Information in academic journal articles is presented in a formal, highly prescribed format, meaning that scholarly articles tend to follow a similar layout, pattern, and style. The pages often look stark, with little decoration or imagery. We see few photos in scholarly articles. The article title is often fairly prominent on the first page, as are the author(s)’ name(s). Sometimes there is a bit of information about each author, such as the name of his or her current academic institution or academic credentials. At either the top or bottom of the first few pages, you can find the name of the scholarly journal in which the article is published.


    On the first page of the article, you will often find an abstract, which is a summary of the author’s research question, methods and results. While this abstract is useful to you as a reader because it gives you some background about the article before you begin reading, you should not cite this abstract in your paper. Please read these abstracts as you are initially seeking sources so that you can determine whether or not reading the article will be useful to you, but do not quote or paraphrase from the abstract.

    Works Cited

    At the end of academic articles, you will find a list of Works Cited (sometimes called a List of References). This is generally quite long, and it details all of the work that the author considered or cited in designing his or her own research project or in writing the article. Helpful hint: reading the Works Cited in an article that you find to be particularly illuminating or useful can be a great way to locate other sources that may be useful for your own research project. If you see a title that looks interesting, see if you can access it via your university’s library.

    Literature Review

    Scholarly sources often contain Literature Reviews in the beginning section of the article. They are generally several paragraphs or pages long. Some articles are only Literature Reviews. These Literature Reviews generally do not constitute an author’s own work. Instead, they are summaries and syntheses of other scholars’ work that has previously been published on the topic that the author is addressing in his or her paper. Including this review of previous research helps the author to communicate his or her understanding of the context out of which his or her research comes.

    Like the abstract, the Literature Review is another part of a scholarly article from which you should generally not quote. Often, students will mistakenly try to cite information that they find in this Literature Review section of scholarly articles. But that is sort of like citing a SparkNotes version of an essay that you have not read. The Literature Review is where your author, in his or her own words, describes previous research. He or she is outlining what others have said in their own articles, not offering his or her own new insight (and what we are interested in in scholarly articles is the new information that a researcher brings to the topic). If you find that there is interesting information from the sources that your author discusses in the Literature Review, then you should locate the article(s) that the author is summarizing and read them for yourself. That, in fact, is a great strategy for finding more sources.

    The “Research Gap”

    Somewhere near the end of the Literature Review, authors may indicate what has not been said or not been examined by previous scholars. This has been called a “research gap” – a space out of which a scholar’s own research develops. The “research gap” opens the opportunity for the author to assert his or her own research question or claim. Academic authors who want to publish in scholarly research journals need to define a research gap and then attempt to fill that gap because scholarly journals want to publish new, innovative and interesting work that will push knowledge and scholarship in that field forward. Scholars must communicate what new ideas they have worked on: what is their new hypothesis, or experiment, or interpretation or analysis.

    The Scholar(s) Add Their New Perspective

    Then, and sometimes for the bulk of an academic article, the author discusses their original work and analysis. This is the part of the article where the author(s) add to the conversation, where they try to fill in the research gap that they identified. This is also the part of the article that is the primary research. The author(s) may include a discussion of their research methodology and results, or an elaboration and defense of their reasoning, interpretation or analysis. Scholarly articles in the sciences or social sciences may include headings such as “Methods,” “Results,” and “Discussion” or synonyms of those words in this part of the article. In arts or humanities journal articles, these headings may not appear because scholars in the arts and humanities do not necessarily perform lab-based research in the same way as scientists or social scientists do. Authors may reference others’ research even in this section of original work and analysis, but only to support or enhance the discussion of the scholar’s own discussion. This is the part of the scholarly article that you should cite from, as it indicates the work your author or authors have done.


    To conclude a scholarly journal article, authors may reference their original research question or hypothesis once more. They may summarize some of the points made in the article. We often see scholars concluding by indicating how, why, or to whom their research matters. Sometimes, authors will conclude by looking forward, offering ideas for other scholars to engage in future research. Sometimes, they may reflect on why an experiment failed (if it did) and how to approach that experiment differently next time. What we do not tend to see is scholars merely summarizing everything they discussed in the essay, point by point. Instead, they want to leave readers with a sense of why the work that they have discussed in their article matters.

    As you read scholarly sources, remember:

    • To look for the author’s research question or hypothesis;
    • To seek out the “research gap”: why did the author have this research question or hypothesis?
    • To identify the Literature Review;
    • To identify the point at which the author stops discussing previous research and begins to discuss his or her own;
    • Most importantly: remember to always try to understand what new information this article brings to the scholarly “conversation” about this topic?

    Types of Sources: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary

    The determination of a text as “popular” or “scholarly/academic” is one way to classify it and to understand what type of information you are engaging with. Another way to classify sources is by considering whether they are primary, secondary or tertiary. Popular sources can be primary, secondary, or tertiary. Scholarly sources, also, can be primary, secondary, or tertiary.

    What is a Primary Source?

    Primary sources are texts that arise directly from a particular event or time period. They may be letters, speeches, works of art, works of literature, diaries, direct personal observations, newspaper articles that offer direct observations of current events, survey responses, tweets, other social media posts, original scholarly research (meaning research that the author or authors conduct themselves) or any other content that comes out of direct involvement with an event or a research study.

    Primary research is information that has not yet been critiqued, interpreted or analyzed by a second (or third, etc.) party.

    Primary sources can be popular (if published in newspapers, magazines or websites for the general public) or academic (if written by scholars and published in scholarly journals).

    Examples of primary sources:

    • Journals, diaries
    • Blog posts
    • A speech
    • Data from surveys or polls
    • Scholarly journal articles in which the author(s) discuss the methods and results from their own original research/experiments
    • Photos, videos, sound recordings
    • Interviews or transcripts
    • Poems, paintings, sculptures, songs or other works of art
    • Government documents (such as reports of legislative sessions, laws or court decisions, financial or economic reports, and more)
    What is a Secondary Source?

    Secondary sources summarize, interpret, critique, analyze, or offer commentary on primary sources.

    In a secondary source, an author’s subject is not necessarily something that he or she directly experienced. The author of a secondary source may be summarizing, interpreting or analyzing data or information from someone else’s research or offering an interpretation or opinion on current events. Thus, the secondary source is one step away from that original, primary topic/subject/research study.

    Secondary sources can be popular (if published in newspapers, magazines or websites for the general public) or academic (if written by scholars and published in scholarly journals).

    Examples of secondary sources:

    • Book, movie or art reviews
    • Summaries of the findings from other people’s research
    • Interpretations or analyses of primary source materials or other people’s research
    • Histories or biographies
    • Political commentary
    What is a Tertiary Source?

    Tertiary sources are syntheses of primary and secondary sources. The person/people who compose a tertiary text are summarizing, compiling, and/or paraphrasing others’ work. These sources sometimes do not list an author.

    Tertiary sources can be popular or academic.

    Examples of tertiary sources include:

    • Encyclopedias
    • Fact books
    • Dictionaries
    • Guides
    • Handbooks
    • Wikipedia

    Thinking about Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources and your Research Strategy

    • What kinds of primary sources would be useful for your research project? Why? Where will you find them? Are you more interested in popular primary sources or scholarly primary sources — and why?
    • What kinds of secondary sources could be useful for your project – and why? Are you more interested in popular secondary sources or scholarly secondary sources – and why?
    • What kinds of tertiary sources might you try to access? In what ways would this tertiary source help you in your research?
    Practice Activity

    The original version of this chapter contained H5P content. You may want to remove or replace this element.

    This section contains material from:

    Jeffrey, Robin, and Yvonne Bruce. “Types of Evidence in Academic Arguments.” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

    Zickel, Emilie. “A Deeper Look at Scholarly Sources.” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

    “Types of Primary Sources: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary.” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

    OER credited in the texts above include:

    Jeffrey, Robin. About Writing: A Guide. Portland, OR: Open Oregon Educational Resources. Accessed December 18, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

    This page titled 7.8: Using the Right Sources for Your Project is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Terri Pantuso, Emilie Zickel, Sarah LeMire, Robin Jeffrey, Yvonne Bruce, & Yvonne Bruce via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.