Selecting Sources

 are drowning in information but starved for knowledge. - John Naisbitt 

Goals for this session:
      • Identify the differences between primary and secondary sources.
      • Identify the differences among popular magazines, trade magazines, and academic journals.

When you have a research paper, you may be tempted to: 1) write your paper based on what you already know about a topic, then try to fit the sources into your paper or 2) start searching Google for sources before thinking about what you need to find. Both of these approaches may seem like the right way, but these approaches often leave students 1) frustrated when they find it is more difficult to fit the words and ideas from the sources into a paper already written or 2) confused and/or overwhelmed by the task of focusing a paper written without a clearly laid out plan. 

There is an overwhelming amount of information on the Internet, hidden in databases, and held in libraries and other institutions. Knowing what types of information and sources are best suited to your needs will save you a lot of time.

Types of Information 
Before you begin to write a research paper, you will need find information from a variety of source types to help you develop your thesis statement, or the position you take on an issue, and later to help support the thesis statement in your paper. 

Take a look at the following types of information:
  • Public opinion poll
  • Scientific research article 
  • Diary entry 
  • Book on the history of WWII 
  • Statistics 
  • News report 
  • Editorial 
  • Tweets on a topic from Twitter

Not all information sources are suitable for all purposes.  Some sources are more appropriate than others for providing evidence and supporting your research paper position.  Let's examine these information types. 

Information is either a primary, secondary or tertiary source. Tertiary sources are those that lead you to secondary or primary sources, e.g., the library catalog, periodical indexes, and web directories. You will then be using primary and secondary sources to support your paper's position. Take a look at the following short video that explains the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Click here for a primary vs. secondary source comparison sheet.

Both primary and secondary information can be presented objectively or subjectively. Objective information looks at an issue from many different perspectives. These are factual sources of information that can be verified by other sources, such as reference sources and original research studies. Subjective information looks at an issue from only one perspective. Opinion essays and diary entries are examples of subjective material.

Balance being key, you want to mix secondary material, such as expert opinion, with primary material, such as original research studies and statistics. Most of your information should be objective, but a subjective primary source (e.g., diary entry or interview) may provide personal experience with an event or issue that will also help support your argument.

Information Source Types 
Most types of information that you will be interested in finding for your research papers will be published in one of the following mediums:

  • primary documents, images, video, etc.
  • online, radio, and television news
  • newspapers
  • popular magazines
  • trade magazines
  • academic journals
  • books
  • reference materials
  • organization, government, or company websites 

You are probably familiar with most of these source types. When looking at the print versions, it's not too difficult to tell when you are looking at a newspaper rather than a magazine, distinguishing a reference book article from a magazine article, or identifying an academic journal from a stack of periodicals. Looking at articles on a computer screen, however, makes it a little more challenging to determine the source type because everything becomes just text on a screen.

Take a look at these slides on source types ... 

and the Finding Sources chart to answer the following questions below. 

In determining the source type that is appropriate for your research needs, you also want to consider the timeliness and level of analysis of the published information. Sources that publish information in response to an event days or weeks after its occurrence will be current but will not have the same depth of coverage or analyses as many sources that publish information months to years later. Watch the information cycle to see when and how various source types respond to events. 

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