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Research Toolkit

Answers for common research questions.

Types of Sources

The tabs below cover some of the most common types of sources that you are likely to encounter when doing academic research. These are not the only types of sources, however. You may also encounter government documents, grey literature, data, tertiary sources, and more.

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, social media (for current events)
A general overview of a topic Books or encyclopedias
Information about a very recent topic Websites, newspapers, magazines, and social media
Local information Newspapers, websites, and books
Information from professionals working in the field Trade or professional publications

 

Scholarly Sources

Scholarly Sources can refer to peer-reviewed journal articles or academic books.

Scholarly journal articles can cover very specific topics or narrow fields of research. Academic books typically provide comprehensive, thorough treatment of a subject.

A scholarly publication is one in which the content is written by experts in a particular field of study - generally for the purpose of sharing original research or analyzing others' findings. Scholarly work will thoroughly cite all source materials used and is usually subject to "peer review" prior to publication. This means that independent experts in the field review, or "referee" the publication to check the accuracy and validity of its claims. The primary audience for this sort of work is fellow experts and students studying the field. As a result the content is typically much more sophisticated and advanced than articles found in general magazines, or professional/trade journals.

In brief, scholarly work is:

  • Written by experts for experts
  • Based on original research or intellectual inquiry
  • Provides citations for all sources used
  • Is usually peer-reviewed prior to publication

To see the typical components of a scholarly journal article, check out the Anatomy of a Scholarly Article from North Carolina State University Libraries.

To learn more about the process of peer review, watch this short video, also from North Carolina State University Libraries.

Source: “Peer Review in 3 Minutes” by North Carolina State University Libraries, licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US License.

Popular Sources

Popular sources covers a wide range of sources, including newspapers and magazines.

While many of your research projects will require you to read articles published in scholarly journals, books or other peer reviewed source of information, there is also a wealth of information to be found in more popular publications. These aim to inform a wide array of readers about issues of interest and are much more informal in tone and scope. Examples include general news, business and entertainment publications such as Time Magazine, Business Weekly, Vanity Fair.

Special interest publications which are not specifically written for an academic audience are also considered "popular" i.e., National Geographic, Scientific American, Psychology Today.

In brief, popular sources

  • Are written by journalists or professional writers for a general audience.
  • Written in a language that is easy to understand by the general public.
  • Rarely have a bibliography - rather, they are fact-checked through the editorial process of the publication they appear in.
  • Don't assume prior knowledge of a subject area - for this reason, they are often very helpful to read if you don't know a lot about your subject area yet.
  • May contain an argument, opinion, or analysis of an issue.

 

 

Trade Publications

Trade or Professional sources are generally for practitioners and people working in a particular field. These are more specialized in nature than popular publications, but are not intended to be scholarly. Rather, they communicated the news and trends in that field. Research findings are not typically disseminated here - though they may report that a scholarly publication is forthcoming. These types of publications typically will contain more advertising than a scholarly journal - though it's usually targeted to the field in some way. Articles in trade publications, in most cases are written by practitioners in a field (nurses, teachers, social workers, etc) and use the language (and jargon) of the field.

 

Primary Sources

Primary sources are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event. For example, diaries, letters, speeches, and photographs can serve as primary sources. Emails, Tweets, and other social media posts can also be used as primary sources.

In the sciences, primary sources are documents about original research written by the original researchers themselves. Primary sources can also include raw data, an artifact from an archeological dig, or a newspaper article written soon after an event took place.

In literature or art history, the work of art, novel, poem, or play is the primary source that is used for analysis or further intellectual inquiry.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources describe or analyze primary sources. Secondary sources can include reviews, and books, and articles that interpret, review, or synthesize original research.