Sometimes your instructor will require you to incorporate certain types of resources into your research, but for other assignments, you will be looking for sources on your own.
The Internet and the library both contain information on virtually any topic, but it’s important to make sure that you use credible, current sources. Inaccurate, questionable, or out-of-date sources can undermine your ideas and cause the reader to question your authority on your topic. Relevant and informed sources can help you to support and prove your thesis and persuade your audience, so evaluating and selecting sources carefully is an important part of writing a strong, convincing paper.
When searching the library catalogue, an electronic database (such as LexisNexus or Academic Search Premier), or an Internet search engine (such as Google or Yahoo), you’ll probably be surprised at how many resources you find. This is particularly true when conducting an Internet search. As you conduct these initial searches, use the following guidelines to determine whether each source is credible, relevant, and appropriate for your project:
- Author: Who is the author of your source? If you can’t tell who wrote an article, essay, or study, you might want to reconsider using this source. If the material is credible, the author will generally want to be associated with it, so lack of an author can indicate that the source is questionable or unreliable.
- Date: When was the source published or updated? Most books and articles display this prominently, but you may have to look harder for the date on a website or web article. Avoid using sources if you cannot establish a date, since the information may be old or irrelevant.
Your instructor may require you to use a certain number of sources published within the last year, but even if this isn’t the case, try to use as many current (within the last six months to a year) as possible. Certain topics will change significantly in a short period of time, and you want to make sure that your information is current and informed.
In certain circumstances, older sources may be acceptable. For example, if you are comparing how attitudes towards travel have changed since 9/11, it would be useful to find information both prior to and following 9/11. Remember that even if an older article would be useful, always make sure that you can establish when the source was written and/or published.
- Credentials: What are the author’s credentials? Does the article list any degrees, professional affiliations, or describe any experience the author has with the subject? If you’re conducting research on alternative treatments for migraines, for example, you might look to see if the author is a doctor, dietician, alternative health practitioner, or someone with advanced scientific knowledge of migraines and medicine.
Other experience might also make an author credible: if she or he once suffered from migraines but changed this with a combination of diet and exercise, then this author may also have credible knowledge about this topic. Personal experience can make an author less objective, however. While this may not disqualify the source, it’s important to be informed about any biases the author might have.
- Publication Information: How and where was the source published or made available to the public? Often your instructor will require that you use the online library databases to search for magazine, newspaper, and/or journal articles. Many of these can be accessed online, so you’ll be able to read and print the entire article without even leaving your computer.
Although articles in newspapers and popular magazines can help with introductory research, since they help you to learn the basics of a topic, you will probably want to use scholarly resources for more advanced research. Peer-reviewed periodicals are often excellent resources, since each article will have been evaluated and reviewed by independent experts in the field prior to publication. Here are some characteristics of peer-reviewed periodicals:
- The author is a scholar or researcher in the field
- The author cites his or her sources in footnotes or a bibliography
- The journal is published or sponsored by a professional organization (such as the American Medical Association or American Bar Association)
- The journal is published by an academic institution (such as the University of Maryland) or research institution (such as the National Institutes of Health)
- There is very little, if any, advertising
- The title contains the words Journal, Quarterly, or Review
If you are using a source accessed via the Internet (rather than through an electronic database), you should determine the credibility of the sponsoring organization by considering the following:
- What is the website's URL? Pay particular attention to the last part of the domain name (for example, the edu in the URL www.umuc.edu). A .edu indicates that the website’s sponsoring organization is an accredited college or university, while a .org usually indicates that the sponsor is a nonprofit organization. A .com or .net may indicate that the sponsor is for profit.
- Is there an About page or a link to more information about the sponsoring organization? Organizations may have a mission statement that reveals a particular bias or stance.
- While none of these may necessarily disqualify or qualify a source, they can help you determine if the website has any biases on either side of an issue or topic.