In order to write a good research paper, one must first select good and appropriate sources. Watch the short video clips and other information provided below on this Evaluating Resources tab to learn more. If you have any questions, please contact a librarian.
Periodicals: Publications that come out on a regular schedule, like journals, magazines, or newspapers
Scholarly Journal: A periodical containing articles written by and for scholars; almost always peer reviewed
Peer Review: A pre-publication process in which scholars review each other's work to improve its quality (usually anonymously)
Primary Source: Original information used in analysis
Secondary Source: A source that analyzes or interprets a primary source and is typically used in support of an argument
Authoritative: A way of describing sources whose accuracy can be trusted; scholarly journal articles and books tend to be highly authoritative.
What does it mean for a source to be credible and why is this important? Find out by watching this video.
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Are you having trouble determining whether you have a good source that is applicable for your research paper? Remember the acronym CRAAP (You can say it, don't worry!). The terms currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, & purpose will help you evaluate your sources.
The CRAAP test is one quick way of checking to see if your sources are credible and good to use for your research.
How current is the information?
Is the information related to your needs?
The author's expertise
Is the information correct?
The reason the information exists
The CRAAP test was created by librarian Sarah Blakeslee at California State University, Chico.
Is there one perfect source out there for the paper you are writing? Is finding this one perfect source the best strategy for completing your research? What other methods might work instead? Find out the answers by watching this video.
Your professor may ask you to write a paper using qualitative sources or perhaps they will ask you to write a paper using quantitative sources instead. Alternatively, your professor might ask you to write a paper using both. This video clip will explain the difference between quantitative and qualitative research.
Primary sources and secondary sources are both useful for research papers. This short video clip will explain the differences between both types of sources and how to use them in your research paper.
Evaluation that goes beyond identifying source types will likely involve distinguishing between primary and secondary sources.
A primary source is original information. It could be a letter, a diary entry, a piece of legislation, a literary text like a poem or a novel, an eyewitness account, data from a scientific study, a classified ad, or any number of other things.
A secondary source is an interpretation, analysis, commentary, riff, or basically anything on, of, or about a primary source. Examples of secondary sources include an analysis of a political speech, a critique of an original scientific study, and an examination of the social attitudes expressed in a collection of tweets.
It's important to distinguish between primary and secondary sources because they give you different things. As a general rule, secondary sources give you authoritative points to support your argument, while primary sources give you raw materials to analyze.
Let's say you were writing about the Russian novelist Gogol's Dead Souls, the story of a man's attempts to raise his social status by purchasing legal ownership of serfs who have died on other landowners' properties. An 1842 review of Dead Souls could prove useful as a secondary source. If the reviewer had insights consistent with what you were arguing, you would likely strengthen your argument by quoting them.
But let's say you were making a different kind of argument—for example, that 19th-century literary critics tended to overpraise the artistic merits of novels that endorsed their political views. In that case, the 1842 review of Dead Souls could prove valuable as a primary source. That's because it would give you an authentic document from the relevant period to analyze. You'd be analyzing the review not for what it revealed about Dead Souls but, rather, for what it revealed about the reviewer.
This example illustrates an important principle: that even though we often talk about primary sources and secondary sources as intrinsically one thing or another, they're really not. No source is just a primary source or just a secondary source. Whether a source is primary or secondary depends entirely on how you intend to use it.
“TV and tweets—Can I use them or not?”
It's important to appreciate the distinction between primary and secondary sources and recognize that they'll generally give you different things. If you don't, you're likely going to end up confused about what you can and can't use in your research.
For example, you may not understand why your instructor tells you not to use TV shows in your research but then you hear about graduate students doing dissertations on things like the role of the protagonist in Breaking Bad. And you may not get why your instructor insists you avoid social media when scholars are examining millions of tweets and publishing articles on what they reveal about interpersonal communication in the 21st century.
So which is it? Can things like TV shows, tweets, and Facebook status updates be useful sources in your research—or not? Well, it all depends on how you intend to use them.
If you're treating them as primary sources to analyze, then yes, you can use them. But if you're treating them as secondary sources and using them to provide support for your argument, then no, you shouldn't use them.
What are non-scholarly journals and what purpose do they serve? How can they best be incorporated into your research paper? Watch this short video clip to learn more.
Transcript for Scholarly Journals
Articles from scholarly journals are among the most authoritative sources we have, and, as such, they can give you excellent support for your argument.
There are several reasons articles in scholarly journals are authoritative. The biggest is probably peer review, the process by which corrections and improvements are suggested by experts and incorporated into drafts before publication. Another reason is that writers of scholarly journal articles are themselves almost always experts. Most of them will have advanced degrees and will have conducted extensive research on the topic they're writing about. Still another reason concerns the principal purposes for which articles in scholarly journals are written.
One of the purposes is rather grand: to expand or deepen our understanding of the world. For example, a business scholar might write an article to provide us with more insight into the ways that CEOs of large companies rely on each other for support during stressful times. The other purpose is more practical. Scholars write journal articles to improve their career prospects: to increase their chances of getting a job, of getting tenure, or of getting a promotion.
Most of the time, authors of scholarly journal articles will have both motivations. As a result, they'll be doubly motivated to get things right. Failing to do so would constitute a setback not only for our understanding of the world but also, and often in very material ways, for an author's career.
Of course, not all scholarly journals are equally authoritative. For example, the information in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), which rejects lots of submissions for each article it accepts, is likely going to be more authoritative than the information in a journal that will publish anything for a fee.
It's not that you can't get authoritative information from obscure medical journals, even those that sell page space to desperate authors, and even with high-profile medical journals, there are no ironclad guarantees that the information will be accurate. It's all about playing the percentages. And with journals like BMJ, you have a source that's more likely than most to give you highly authoritative information.
The easiest way to identify the best and most authoritative journals in your field is to ask an instructor or a specialist librarian. In most fields, there's a surprisingly strong consensus on this issue.
In addition to providing authoritative support for your argument, articles in scholarly journals can give you useful primary source elements. For example, they may include data from experiments, surveys, or other kinds of original research, as well as excerpts from interviews. These are all things you can analyze in making your own argument.
Find out what the peer review process is and why it is important for accurate and dependable research.
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What are non-scholarly periodicals and how do they differ from scholarly journals? How can they best be incorporated into your research paper? Watch this video clip to learn more.
Transcript for Non-scholarly Periodicals
What can articles in non-scholarly periodicals like magazines and newspapers give you?
Probably the most important thing they can give you is information to support your argument when you're writing about something too recent to appear in scholarly journals or books.
For example, if you were writing about the June 2018 G7 summit in July 2018, you likely wouldn't find anything about the implications for global trade in scholarly sources. That's because the peer-review process means that the gap between submitting an article or book manuscript and getting it published is generally measured at least in months and very often in years.
The price of currency in news periodicals is a lack of authoritativeness. When you're using information from newspaper and magazine articles to support your argument, you can't have the same confidence in its accuracy as you could with information from journal articles or scholarly books. Consequently, in evaluating these kinds of sources, it's important to ask questions about the author's credentials and experience as well as their purpose in writing.
If your source for information about the 2018 G7 summit was a newspaper column, it would be important to determine whether the author's education or experience gave them any particular insight into global trade and finance and whether the piece was a good-faith attempt at analysis or a partisan attempt to promote or disparage one or more of the parties in attendance.
Another question you could usefully ask about non-scholarly periodicals is who or which company owns them. For example, if you were arguing for the repeal of current copyright law, you'd likely want to know who owned the newspaper you were relying on and, in particular, whether the owner was a major movie or music studio. If it were, then the information reported in the articles may still be accurate. But the fact that the newspaper's owners had a major financial interest in the outcome of the case would be worth keeping in mind as you considered the accuracy of the information.
Questions like these are important, as, undoubtedly, are others that we haven't touched on here. But all of them are really just means to an end—making a judgment about the accuracy of the information.
Besides giving you reasonably current secondary source information, non-scholarly periodicals can also give you statistics, survey data, and interview excerpts. With non-scholarly sources, it's extremely important to track down where these and any other primary source elements came from. That's the best way of making sure they haven't been mischaracterized or taken out of context.
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Learn more about different types of websites and how you might be able to use them in your research by watching this short video clip.
Transcript for Websites film.
There are over a billion websites on the web, so, whatever you're arguing, it's pretty likely you'll find websites that can give you both authoritative information to support your argument and interesting primary source material to analyze.
Pretty much all websites can be useful as primary sources, but only a relatively small percentage of them will provide you with authoritative information to support a claim. The most authoritative websites will usually be online scholarly journals.
But there are other kinds of websites that can give you authoritative information, too.
Identifying authoritative websites will be easier if you recognize and understand the significance of top-level domains. Top-level domains (TLDs) indicate in extremely broad terms what kind of website you're dealing with. Common TLDs are associated with extensions like .com, .org, .edu, and .gov.
The big thing you're looking for with TLDs is whether the associated extension is restricted or unrestricted. If it's restricted, you can infer quite a lot about the website. For example, if a website comes with a .gov extension, you'll know you're dealing with a U.S. government publication of some kind. Or if it comes from a .edu site, you'll know it's associated with a U.S. school, school district, or university. That's because the .gov and .edu extensions are both "restricted," which means that only qualified entities (government agencies and educational institutions in these cases) can use them.
If a TLD is unrestricted, then you can't really infer anything at all about the website. Take .org, for example. Even though it was originally intended for websites associated with non-profit organizations, now anyone can use it. So even if a company sells human organs on the global market for a massive profit, there's nothing to stop it from using a .org extension for its website.
The other important question to answer about websites is who owns them. Knowing a website's owner and understanding their agenda will help you determine the authoritativeness of the information you find on that site. As a general rule, the more qualified the owner is and the less interested they are in persuading you about something, the more authoritative the information is likely to be.
For example, a website owned by the National Education Association would likely have more reliable information on the benefits of using iPads in the classroom than would a website owned by Apple. It's not that you should automatically dismiss data on an Apple-owned site, but the fact that Apple has a tremendous financial stake in proving the educational benefits of their products should be factored into your evaluation. At a minimum, if you were making the case for the universal adoption of iPads, you would strengthen your argument by finding evidence from a site owned by an organization less financially invested in persuading you of a particular outcome.
Wikipedia is a website. But, as you undoubtedly already know, it's not just any website. It's a website made up of millions of articles written and edited by all sorts of people. Although there are now some restrictions on who can contribute to Wikipedia, it's still very much a collective effort, based on the theory that the sum total of lots of regular people's knowledge is greater than one individual's knowledge, even if that individual is extremely smart.
In a world saturated with social media and user-generated content, it may be difficult to appreciate how radical this idea was in 2001, the year Wikipedia was launched. In many ways, we still don't know what to make of Wikipedia articles. Debates are ongoing over how—and even if—they should be used in scholarly research.
In practical terms, however, there is no longer any debate over if. We all use Wikipedia. Perhaps you've heard this stat:
97 percent of researchers use Wikipedia, and the other 3 percent are liars.
Okay, that stat may be of dubious provenance, but it's true almost all of us dip into Wikipedia when we're doing research. Really, what distinguishes beginning from advanced researchers is not whether they use Wikipedia but how they use it.
Beginning researchers will often rely heavily on Wikipedia and even cite it in their final papers—both things your instructor has likely warned you against. And for good reason: you don't have any surefire way of knowing who wrote the passage you're reading. It could be the reasoned output of a brilliant scientist, but it could also be inflammatory nonsense from an internet troll. And since Wikipedia is, by design, always changing, the whole notion of citations—so critical to using information in a scholarly context—is problematic.
So then, what can Wikipedia articles give you? Well, they can give you background information on a topic that could help you refine your research questions. And they can give you references to sources that, unlike Wikipedia itself, are generally considered authoritative. Heck, Wikipedia can also be a terrific primary source since, particularly in its editing history, it reveals a lot about what drives people who feel strongly enough about a topic to edit Wikipedia articles.
What Wikipedia articles generally can't give you—and this is a crucial point—are authoritative secondary sources that you can use to support your argument and cite in your paper.
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Social media is engrained many areas of or lives these days. Is social media reliable enough to use in a research paper?
Transcript for Social Media film
What can social media give you?
Let's not beat around the bush. As support for your argument, the things people post on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, and Vine can give you nothing.
But social media sites can give you primary source elements to analyze. Status updates, tweets, pins, pictures, and videos offer potentially profound insights into what people are thinking and feeling.
Facebook is an example of a source that is invariably horrible as a secondary source but can be great as a primary source. Here's an illustration.
Let's say you're arguing that Facebook extends the reach of school bullies. What your friends say on Facebook about school bullying won't give you anything at all to support your argument. That's because the things they write on Facebook aren't authoritative. However, abusive status updates, personally insulting comments, and unflattering pictures posted without permission could reveal a lot about the mindset of the online bully. As such, they could provide you with a rich collection of primary sources for analysis.
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