Research More Efficiently: Mine Your Sources

You’ve been assigned a research paper and shown how to use the library database. You’ve typed in your search terms and gotten results, but have one of two problems:

  1. You have a lot of results – possibly tens of thousands – and you don’t know how to figure out which authors or publications are important.
  2. You got very few results and don’t know where to go from here.

One tactic you can apply is to mine your sources. Read on to find out what that means.

What does it mean to “mine your sources”?

Mining refers to digging for precious stones or metals – or in the case of the cover photo, bones!  Mining your sources refers to “digging” through the text or the reference lists of academic writing to learn more about the field and locate important references. As I explained in Citing Sources: Why Do We Do It?, one of the reasons for citation is to acknowledge where our information came from so that others can find it if they are interested. That’s mining sources.

Mining your sources can help you look more intelligent, because knowing who is cited the most often and how is “insider” information. It can also help you avoid embarrassing mistakes, like citing someone whose research has been discredited. Mining your sources can help you identify different search terms and subfields than you might have thought of on your own. And it can help point you toward more sources when you have come up against a wall in your database search.

How do I mine my sources?

Mining sources starts with reading. When you read an academic article or book, the author is doing two things:

  1. Building on the work of others and
  2. Adding their own work to the academic conversation

When you use material from the second category, then you cite the work that you’re reading. That’s all you need to do.

When you use material from the first category, however, you have a choice. You can either take the author’s word that how they’re presenting the material is correct, or you can go look at it yourself. Often, taking their word for it is fine. But sometimes they give you a tidbit of information when you need more, or their source provides terminology that you want to know more about, and so on. When that happens, I circle the material in my copy and write “find this reference!” in the margin. Later I will look through the reference list for that article and then go to the database to find my own copy.

As you read multiple articles or books, you may begin to notice that some names come up frequently. An author may refer to someone as important in the field. Depending on the scope of your research project, you may want to find articles written by that person. The same is true of terms, methods, and theories, and if you are lucky you can find a review article for these. (A review article summarizes the relevant academic work for a specific topic.)

When you finish reading a particularly good article, it can be helpful to simply skim through their reference list for intriguing references. This tactic is particularly helpful if you haven’t been successful in your database search and changing search terms hasn’t helped. The titles of academic works listed in the references may give you ideas for different approaches to searching.

Be careful

A word of caution: it’s easy to get off-track when you start following sources. You can also start to feel like there’s too much information to know and like you’ll never get through it all. Here’s a secret: there IS too much information to know and you WON’T get through it all. If you start to feel that way, refocus and remember that your objective is the paper you began working on. Mining your sources is telling you what is relevant, not what is possible. Focus on the relevant.


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