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Research Topics: How to Select & Develop: Deciding What Types of Sources You Will Need

Consider the Purpose of Your Sources

What do you hope to accomplish by using sources? Some common reasons you might use sources in your own work include:

  • to show how your voice enters into an intellectual conversation.
  • to communicate your understanding of an issue and your credibility.
  • to inspire and enrich your own ideas.
  • to acknowledge the work of others.
  • to connect readers to related research

Consider the Types of Evidence You Need

Consider the types of evidence needed to answer your research question or make your argument. Are certain types of sources recommended or required? Some instructors require you to use only scholarly peer-reviewed journals, primary sources, newspapers, or books from the library, while others might leave things more open-ended.

If you need: Try using:
Expert evidence Scholarly articles, books, and statistical data
Public or individual opinion on an issue Newspapers, magazines, and websites
Basic facts about an event Newspapers, books, encyclopedia (for older and well-known events)
Eye-witness accounts Newspapers, primary source books, web-based collections of primary sources
A general overview of a topic Books or encyclopedias
Information about a very recent topic Websites, newspapers, and magazines
Local information Newspapers, websites, and books
Information from professionals working in the field Professional/trade journals

Understand Source Types

Scholarly article

  • Written by an expert in the field and reviewed by peers in the field, include references and have a academic style. Learn more about "peer-reviewed" articles.
  • Note: In many databases, you can limit your search to scholarly, peer-reviewed or refereed journals. However, this option is not perfect, as it may also remove some peer-reviewed content that is still peer-reviewed.

Professional/trade article

  • Published in trade or professional journals and written by experts in the field or by staff writers, mainly intended for professionals in a given field but generally easier to read than most scholarly articles, not 'scholarly' but may still have useful information.
  • Examples: School Library Journal, Harvard Business Review, Engineering and Mining Journal, and American Biology Teacher.

Popular journal

  • Written for a general audience.
  • Examples: The New Yorker, People, and Rolling Stone

Primary source

  • Created during the period being studied, documents what is being studied in some way.
  • Examples: newspaper articles, government documents, letters, diaries, autobiographies, speeches, oral histories, museum artifacts, and photographs

Secondary source

  • One step removed from an event, analyzes primary sources.
  • Examples: a book about World War II based on records from the time, a journal article about Chinese immigrants to Portand (Most books and articles are secondary sources.)


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