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Understanding Sources: Tips!


Tip #1 : What Is & Is Not Research

Setting out to find proof or seeking a fact is part of research, but that might be better termed investigation. True academic research seeks a question which has not already been answered.


Tip #2 : Find the original source

Journal articles, magazines, and news can all lead you to primary and secondary sources pertinent to your own research.  Do not rely solely on the summary or description of others. 


Tip # 3 : Go where the evidence leads 

It is tempting to start with a conclusion and find the evidence to support it. It is also reasonable to have an expectation of what you hope to prove, but cherry picking information is not research. There is always debate. Intellectually engaging in sources, particularly when they challenge our preconceptions or expectations:

  • Helps to build stronger reasoning and writing skills
  • Over time improves critical thinking skills necessary to develop strong claims and arguments and to recognize weak ones
  • Introduces us to the language and standards of a field


Tip # 4 : There is no one source, paper, or database that will or should satisfy your research question

The sources you choose communicates nearly as much to your reader as your actual words. This is necessarily a very subjective process. Relying on one source is allowing someone else to dictate which information is relevant. Furthermore, new research, ideas, and information are being produced and published from so many sources on so many platforms that it is impossible to find it all in one place. And, even if everything on a narrowly defined topic could be corralled there will still be seemingly unrelated or only tangentially related information that could provide new insight.


Tip # 5:

We are living in an age of unprecedented knowledge production and access to information that for many of us would have been unimaginable less than twenty years ago. There are billions of webpages and a bewildering amount of data.

While it may seem that having so much information at our fingertips has made research easier than ever, actually, knowing how to find, identify, and evaluate the quality and appropriateness of information is a more complicated endeavor today than at any time in the past. Knowing the difference between a tabloid and a credible journal is not sufficient to be a truly sophisticated information user nowadays. A savvy researcher is able to effectively search for, evaluate, and utilize information from a variety of sources using a variety of search tools; subscription databases, search engines, websites, archives, indices, bibliographic catalogs, etc.


Tip # 6 : Print vs. Digital

Oftentimes, students are instructed to use library resources and not the internet, which can be confusing considering that much of the information we access is online. This is really meant as a distinction between types of sources, not the way in which the source is accessed. Whether a journal is print or in a database is irrelevant. Also, there are many sources available through open access websites and archives that are appropriate for academic research.

What does matter immensely is that: 

  • Higher quality, credible information is rarely going to pop up in the first 20 or 100 Google search results.
  • Most peer-reviewed journals are exclusively in subscription databases.
  • A lot is online, but not everything (probably far less than most of us think) and libraries can connect you to a wealth of resources either not online or not available through your particular library or institution.