How do I know which sources are worth locating and reading?

Critique, compare, corroborate
Popular versus scholarly sources
Primary versus secondary sources
Tracing cited works

Make sure you keep sight of your focus as it evolves and deepens. You don't need to find all of the available sources, but you do want good ones that answer the questions you have posed for yourself and serve as convincing evidence for your reader. Your sources are your "expert witnesses" - so make sure they come with impeccable credentials.

Critique, compare, corroborate

As you search, keep track of the most promising sources and then look at them closely, asking yourself these questions.

  • is it relevant? Does this source help me accomplish my task?
  • is it timely? Is it too dated? is it a primary source from the historical period I'm interested in?
  • is it written for an appropriate audience? Has it repackaged information in a way that oversimplifies it? will my reader expect more technical or scholarly information than this?
  • is it authoritative? Are there clues that tell me why I (and my reader) should rely on this source? Why does the author present this information, and does that purpose suggest a particular bias? Does it analyze or advocate for a particular stance? 
  • does it makes sense? Does the information hang together logically? Does it provide evidence for its claims that is persuasive? 

When you aren't an expert, it may seem daunting to evaluate the work others have published, but a book's table of contents or an article's opening paragraphs will help establish relevance. The language it is written in will help you decide if it is scholarly enough and yet not too highly technical for your purposes. Information given about the author might help you decide how much an authority he or she is. For Web sources, follow links to information "about this site" or to an author's home page, or shorten the URL to everything up to the first slash to see what its parent page looks like. When in doubt, check with your instructor.

Compare: In addition to looking at the quality of individual sources, compare them so that you can see where there are differences and conflicts. Even if you are heading toward a particular conclusion, you want to discuss alternative perspectives so your reader gets the big picture.

Corroborate: If you feel as if you're going out on a limb, try to corroborate the information you want to use in another source. A reference librarian can help you do that.

Popular versus scholarly sources

Quite often you will be expected to use "scholarly" or "peer-reviewed" sources. How can you tell whether a source is scholarly? Look for these indicators.

  • The author is a scientist or scholar, not a journalist. Usually you can find some note about where the author works, and more often than not it's at a college or university.
  • The audience is other researchers, scientists, or scholars, so the language is fairly complex and assumes a level of sophistication.
  • If an article, it is fairly long. It's rare for a scholarly article to be one or two pages.
  • It includes references and/or a bibliography.

Though many databases let you limit a search to scholarly articles, they aren't foolproof. As an example, they will include book reviews, which are not reporting original research and may not be what your course instructor has in mind. When in doubt, check with your professor. And take a look at "Anatomy of a Scholarly Article" from North Carolina State University Library.

One of the reasons Gustavus requires at least one Writing in the Disciplines (WRITD) courses is because styles are different for in different majors. Scholarly sources do not all look the same. Scholarly articles in history are usually longer than those in physics journals. Articles in chemistry often have color illustrations and their journals carry adverstising, but you won't find many color illustrations or advertisements in literary criticism journals. In sociology and psychology, articles almost always have abstracts, but you rarely see them in art history or religion articles.

If you're curious about the different ways scholars approach research, these brief discriptions may be of interest.

Primary versus secondary sources

The term "primary source" is defined differently by different disciplines. In the humanities, a primary source is a historical document, such as a diary, memoir, a work of art, a news account published when an event was fresh - something from the historical period under examination, unfiltered by anyone else. In the sciences, a primary source is a scientist's write-up of their research that includes their methods and results, as opposed to science journalism or a summary of research (a "review article") that has been conducted to provide an overview of research on a given topic.

A secondary source is one that has already been analyzed by someone else.Moving even further from the unfiltered event is a teriary source such as a textbook, that summarizes knowledge in general terms.

Using primary sources, whether in science or the humanities, helps a researcher get as close as possible to the subject under examination. Using primary sources can be a good way to point your reader to the raw materials of your ideas and provide an opportunity for you to do your own, original analysis.

To find historical primary sources, check out our guide to primary sources available in our library.

Tracing cited works

One of the most powerful ways to find valuable sources and assess their signifcance is to follow the breadcrumb trail left by scholars in their published work. When researchers cite sources, they are bolstering their argument by providing evidence, but also pointing readers to places they can go for more information. Take them up on it!

In addition to references in books and articles, the bibliographies found in specialized reference works such as the New Grove Dictionary of Music or the Encyclopedia of Psychology will point you to the most significant research on a topic, an efficient shortcut to the best stuff.

Once you see a reference that looks good, how do you get your hands on it? Here's a quick checklist.

  • Is the reference to a book? Search the title of the book in MnPALS Plus.
  • Is the reference to a chapter or essay in a book? Check the book title in MnPALS Plus (not the title of the essay).
  • Is the reference to a journal article? Click on the Journals link and type in the title of the journal.
  • Did you strike out? Request it through Interlibrary Loan.
  • Not sure what it is? Ask at the reference desk.
Photo courtesy of arjecahn.

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