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Know Your Sources

Learn about the different types of sources available for you to use for your research and how to choose reliable ones

Primary & Secondary Information

For research projects you will be using two basic types of information: Primary and Secondary. Your instructor will usually tell you what types of information he or she expects you to use for your research.What's the difference between these types?

Primary (Think of this as Firsthand):

Primary information is comprised of original materials that were created first hand. This type of information is from the time period involved and has not been filtered through interpretation. Examples are:

  • Original Research (reported in journals & dissertations)
  • Diaries
  • Interviews (legal proceedings, personal, telephone, email)
  • Letters
  • Original Documents (i.e. birth certificate or a trial transcript)
  • Patents
  • Photographs
  • Proceedings of Meetings, Conferences and Symposia
  • Survey Research (such as market surveys and public opinion polls)
  • Works of Literature

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secondary sourcesSecondary (Think of this as Second Hand):

Secondary information is made up of accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. Therefore, secondary information interprets and evaluates primary information. Examples are:

  • Biographies
  • Books
  • Commentaries
  • Dissertations
  • Indexes, Abstracts, Bibliographies (used to locate primary & secondary sources)
  • Journal Articles

Popular, Substantive, and Scholarly Sources

Unless otherwise instructed by your teacher, you'll probably want to use a variety sources to help you gain a complete understanding of your topic. Sources of information generally fall within three categories. These categories are  Popular, Substantive, and Scholarly (or Peer Reviewed). To use them skillfully you need to be able to identify them and understand their differences.

Picture of popular sources

Popular Sources:

  • Created by journalists, staff writers or freelance writers, and, sometimes, by enthusiasts.
  • Written for the general public.
  • Provides a broad overview of topics a general readership will find entertaining.
  • You'll need to be sure to supplement information from popular sources with articles from substantive and scholarly sources.
Picture of substantive sources

Substantive Sources:

  • Written by experts or credentialed journalists.
  • Written for an educated audience.
  • Provides credible information of relevance to an educated and concerned public.
  • Substantive information is a great choice for community college students, because it is both credible and easy to understand.
Picture of scholarly sources

Scholarly Sources:

  • Written by scholars/experts whose credentials can be evaluated.
  • Written for other scholars, it communicates specialized and discipline-specific information, often reporting on original research and experimentation.
  • Scholarly information is a great choice for college students, though it can be challenging to read because of its scholarly language.
  • Scholarly sources are often called academic or peer-reviewed.

What Does Peer Review Mean?

Peer review is a process that some scholarly journal publishers use to ensure the articles they publish represent the best scholarship currently available. Peer-reviewed journals are sometimes called "refereed" journals. When an article is submitted to a peer-reviewed/refereed journal, the editors send it out to other scholars in the same field to get their opinion on the quality of the scholarship and its relevance and importance to the field. This means that when an article is finally published in a peer-reviewed publication, there is a consensus among experts that the information communicated in that article is of the highest quality.

Not all scholarly publications are peer-reviewed, though it is very common for professors to request peer-reviewed articles to ensure you are exposed to the most credible information within your discipline.

Scaffold Your Sources To Understand Your Topic More Fully

Do Your Sources Pass the CRAAP Test for Credibility?

As you begin to explore your topic and seek answers to your research questions, you need to be sure that you're using the best possible sources of information. You'll most likely find a variety of sources during your research including books, articles, Web documents, interviews, DVDs, and more.

You can feel pretty confident that books you get from the library and articles you find in the library's databases are reliable and credible because you know those have gone through a traditional editorial process; someone or some group has checked all the facts and arguments the author made and then deemed them suitable for publishing. You still have to think about whether or not the book or article is current and suitable for your project but you can feel confident that it is a credible, reliable source.

For each and every source you use you want to make sure it passed the CRAAP test.

Evaluate your sources: The CRAAP Test

 

For more on the CRAAP Test see our guide entitled, Evaluate Your Sources Using the CRAAP Test.

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Watch the brief video below to see how this works.