Finding Strong and Reliable Sources for a Research paper
This blog entry is meant as a quick guide for those who find themselves needing some advice on what types of sources there are and what one needs for a research paper, how to determine whether a source is reliable, and where or how to go about finding these sources.
Sources: what are they?
In writing, when we refer to ‘a source’, we’re discussing the origins of information, i.e. where a bit of information came from. Sources can derive from every facet of human-generated media, so that something as innocuous as a product label or as relevant as a great epic can be considered a source. The two overarching forms of sources are primary and secondary. The simplest way to understand the difference is that a primary source is original media or media that takes place within an event, while a secondary source is media that discusses a primary source and takes place outside an event. For example, Winston’ Churchill’s famous speech “We shall fight on the beaches” is a primary source; it took place within the context of World War II and within that context it captures information, culture, and attitudes of the time. On the other hand, a secondary source would be any biography written on the life of Churchill, especially after his death. These rules aren’t concrete, and they oscillate somewhat depending on the subject at hand. A strong research paper will always include analysis of both primary and secondary sources unless otherwise specified.
Reliability is essential when examining potential sources for a research paper. If a research paper does not use reliable sources, it can come under charges of plagiarism and academic integrity (resulting in expulsion, shunning, and even fines). Determining reliability as it pertains to secondary sources is straightforward and it will always exist metaphorically in shades of grey – that is, unless you’re an expert, there is no way to be perfectly sure a secondary source is totally reliable. Even so, this occurs on a sliding scale and what’s more important is filtering out the truly unreliable.
The first step to take toward understanding a given source is determining the origin of the source itself (yes, the originator of the origin of information). This means, before anything else, considering the publisher and the author of the source. Reputable academic publishers carry weight in terms of reliability. For example, Pearson Education is highly unlikely to publish a book or collection of essays that is not academically sound because the company’s reputation (and therefore revenue) revolves around its trustworthiness. Likewise, recognized scholarly journals are typically run by collections of experts, such as the American Journal of Archaeology, and those experts rely on each other for a system of checks and balances to keep their disciplines sound. Articles and works that take place under the aegis of reputable organizations are always vetted by peers and experts in their respective fields – this makes them extremely sound secondary sources. Often, organizations also publish content themselves, which is also reliable if often less specific.
Another means of determining reliability rests in examining the author of a work. Typically, a quick Google search will show you exactly who an author is – reading up on them can show you their political leanings, any controversies they’ve been through, and perhaps most importantly, their affiliations. For example, if your research paper is controversial, such as regarding the ethics of abortion, you should understand an author’s ideological leanings before using them as a source. Reputable authors will have a history of publication in journals and books, belong to professional or expert organizations, and often maintain affiliation with a college or university. These all point to relatively reliable authors for sources, but it’s still important to understand who they are and why they’re creating content and decide for yourself if they’re reliable for your purposes. Interestingly, critically thinking about secondary sources works the same way for primary sources – one must identify where it comes from, why it exists, its role, and if one can trust it within the confines of one’s subject.
In the Age of Information within which we currently live, finding sources can be extremely efficient if one is well-versed in identifying reliability, or a huge headache if one is not. Honestly, identifying sources’ reliability comes from years of practice and research – the best and safest way to begin collecting reliable sources is by sticking to the most traditional ones: academic journals, books, and organizations’ publications. If you’re fortunate enough to attend a school with a large collection, you can often get all the information from your campus library. As a student or staff member on campus, you also have access to online versions of (usually) hundreds of reputable academic journals searchable through your library database. In my professional experience as an academic researcher without a campus affiliation, I tend to use significant publicly accessible collections quite often for both primary and secondary resources, such as those within the Toronto Reference Library. I supplement these sources with reputable online sources from academic societies and organizations.
Websites are perfectly acceptable secondary sources so long as you can demonstrate they are reliable using the parameters we’ve discussed – Wikipedia, contrary to what many blanketly say, is an excellent initial foundation for understanding your topic but not for use within your paper. In fact, you can even mine truly reliable sources from Wiki sites, which will often reference academic journals and organizations. They can provide a launchpad from which you can begin your research. We’ll get to how to employ these sources more effectively in the next section.