If you’re writing a college-level research paper, most likely your instructor has told you that you must use a certain type of “source.” The language used to describe these sources varies, but in general, your teacher expects you to use high-quality sources for the information in your paper. Let’s take this concept apart so you have a better understanding of exactly what your teacher expects.
(Note: see Before You Begin, How to read an assignment sheet and rubric, and Writing Prompts: Understanding what the teacher wants (1/3) for more information on writing assignments and where to find requirements. If you have any question at all about what your teacher wants, ask them.)
What follows is a list of definitions/explanations of the different types of sources your teacher is likely to ask you for. I’m going to begin with the most general and end with the most specific. At the end, I’ll explain how to find these types of sources.
(Note: sometimes, instructors use these terms interchangeably. If you feel that the directions aren’t specific enough, it’s best to check with your instructor to find out exactly what they want.)
Types of Sources
Source: A source is where you find information about your topic. Information includes definitions, statistics, explanations – anything you find that informs or supports your topic. Possible sources include (but are not limited to) dictionary.com and wikipedia (don’t use these!), government or organizational websites, books, and journal articles (see Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing, Part 2 for more on definitions). All of your sources must be cited — see Citing Sources: Why Do We Do It? for the first installment in my series about citation.
Used in a sentence: All of my sources were from wikipedia, and my teacher failed my paper.
Reputable Source: Not all sources are created equal, and the internet is a tricksy place. Anyone can create a website or a blog post, and if you aren’t careful, you can wind up using information that is just not good. Here’s an example: a lot of students use Quizlet to create study guides for exams. A lot of other students use public quizlets to cheat on exams. In my classes, generally that’s pretty easy to spot, and students end up failing – not just because they cheated, but also because their answers were just wrong. They relied on other students to be right, and it didn’t work out for them.
A reputable source is one that has a good reputation for providing accurate data and/or is widely used in the field you’re in. Government agencies are a great example of a reputable source. If you want to know something about crime statistics in the United States in 2015, for example, you might want to consult the Uniform Crime Report website for data collected and published by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. If you want to know about the gender wage gap, then you’ll want to source that from the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the United States Census. You can also source that material from articles that gathered their data from those sources, but sometimes it’s better to go directly to the agency that crunched that data in the first place.
Reputable sources might also include news agencies. The New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, are generally held in high regard. The Enquirer is not. Or perhaps you are writing about Broadway performances: undoubtedly a publication that has a long history of publishing articles about Broadway would be considered reputable. If you are writing about something local, then local news sources would potentially be the most reputable. Now – if you are writing about shoddy newspaper reporting, then you are probably going to have to use a source that writes shoddy articles. The article is, by definition, not reputable, but you have to cite that source, because you used it. Critique is generally the only time it’s ok to use poor sources.
Used in a sentence: Since I’m writing about how women’s wages have changed over the past 10 years, I’m going to have to use a mixture of reputable sources: academic journals, public reports, and data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Academic Source: An academic source is one that has been produced by someone within the academic/college system. This might include books published by an academic press (Elsevier, WW Norton, Francis and Taylor, etc), university presses (Chicago University Press, Oxford University Press, etc), or peer-reviewed journals (The American Sociological Review, Science Translational Medicine, Journal of Civil and Environmental Engineering, etc). I’ll explain the peer review process below. Books published by academic and university presses are, often, also peer reviewed. An academic source might also include master’s theses and doctoral dissertations.
Used in a sentence: I’m writing my paper about advances in stem cell research in the last decade, so I have to use all academic sources.
Scholarly Source: see Academic Source, above.
Peer-Reviewed Source: a peer-reviewed source is a piece of writing that has only been published after being reviewed by other academic experts in the field. It has, then, been reviewed by “peers” of the author. As mentioned in the Academic Source entry, above, academic or university press books are often peer-reviewed, but not always. Often, when your teacher asks for peer-reviewed sources, what they mean are peer-reviewed journal articles.
So how does peer review work? Let’s follow the process for a peer-reviewed journal article. I’ve been working on my paper, “How X affects X,” for quite some time now and I think it’s ready to send to a journal. A while ago, I looked for a journal that I think matches what I’m writing about, so I submit my paper to that journal using an online submission process. What I submit, though, has to be a “blind” copy – a draft of my paper that doesn’t have any identifying information on it. All references to my name or institution have to be removed so that no one reading it can guess who I am.
After I submit the paper, the journal editor reads through it. If the editor thinks it’s a bad paper or is not a good fit for the journal, I get a “desk reject,” which means that the editor rejects the paper. At that point I look for a different journal. If the editor sends it through, the blind copy gets sent out to three “peers” in my field. Those three peers read and critique the paper and send their comments back to the editor, along with a recommendation for whether or not the paper should be published. Depending on the reviewer comments, the editor might decide to publish it as-is (the best possible outcome, but also the most rare), publish with revisions, request that the author revise and resubmit the paper (an R&R – very common), or reject the paper. Getting an R&R is no guarantee of publication – the editor may well send the revised paper out for a second round of peer review, and the results may be the same.
At the completion of this process, what makes it into the journal has been vetted by other professionals in the field, theoretically with no bias. It is judged to be of good quality both in writing and in content.
You can see that this is a stark contrast to some guy throwing up a blog post.
Used in a sentence: I used the library database’s advanced search functions to limit my search to peer-reviewed journals only.
How do I find reputable and peer-reviewed sources?
The very best way to find good sources is use your college or university library. Most of the library’s collection will be academic, reputable, and peer-reviewed sources. If you aren’t sure how to start, ask the librarian! That’s what they are there for, and your tuition and fees are helping to support the library. Use that resource! They’re happy to hear from you. Really.
Your library likely has two ways of searching their holdings (what they have available to you): a search bar that searches through their physical holdings (what’s on the shelves or available as digital copies) and database searches. Universities pay to subscribe to different sets of databases that organize scholarly publications. Anyone can search the library’s physical holdings, but usually only faculty, staff, and students of a particular university can search the database holdings. Here’s a screen shot of the library page for my current university:
Anything I enter in the search bar that says “search collections” will give me resources that the library currently has on hand, which means that if it isn’t checked out, I can walk over to the library and put my hands on it.
If I click on “Research Guides,” instead, I’ll be taken to a page that lists all the academic disciplines that librarians have created research guides for. I’m at a large university — your library may or may not have research guides. If you do, great! The research guides will give you the most frequently used databases for your field, as well as contact information for the subject librarian in your area.
If I click on “Databases,” it takes me to a list of all the databases available to you via the university’s subscriptions. There are a lot (see below)!
When I narrow it down by field, though, it gets a lot easier (see below).
I really like Sociological Abstracts, because I have a lot of luck finding what I need when I use it.
Expect to have to log in if you are off-campus. Once I’m in, I get a screen that looks like this:
Did you notice the little “peer reviewed” checkbox underneath the search bar? Check that, and it will automatically limit your search to peer-reviewed sources.
It’s OK if you forget, though, because you have the option to limit your search after you’ve started. Check out the “peer reviewed” checkbox within the search, below.
Look what happened to my results when I checked the box! It eliminated 734 sources that were not peer-reviewed. Anything that’s left is an article that you can be sure came from a peer-reviewed source. (Yes, I know that over 12K results is too much to handle. We’ll talk about how to make your search more manageable in a later blog post.)
Not every library web page looks the same, but they all function in roughly the same way. Familiarizing yourself with how your library works and what librarians you can access will really help your college career. I strongly suggest it!
Are you interested in learning more about how to find and use sources? Click the “follow” button to the left and stay tuned!
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