Finding Your Sources

The Importance of Reliability

Using reliable sources in research papers strengthens your own voice and argument.

Learning Objectives

Recognize sources that may be biased

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While researching for sources relevant to your topic, you need to critically read a source to identify possible political or other forms of bias, to consider the effects of historical context, and to discover possible bias on the part of the author.
  • The age of a source is another factor to consider, the importance of which will differ depending on the topic.
  • Consider the possible biases of the author.
  • Websites, unlike books, do not necessarily have publishers. Therefore, you should be attentive to who is behind the websites you find.

Key Terms

  • research: Diligent inquiry or examination to seek or revise facts, principles, theories, applications, et cetera; laborious or continued search after truth.
  • source: The person, place or thing from which something (information, goods, etc. ) comes or is acquired.

Using sources in research papers strengthens your own voice and argument, but to do so effectively you must understand your sources and vet their reliability.

When researching, it is important to determine the position and the reliability of every source/author. This will ensure that your source is both credible and relevant, and that the source will enhance your paper rather than undermine it. The following are a few recommendations to approach sources in whatever form they take.

How Old Is the Source?

The guidelines for assessing the usability of print sources and digital sources (i.e., sources accessed through the Internet) are similar. One point to keep in mind for both digital and print sources is age: How old is the source? Examining the source’s age helps you determine whether the information is relevant to your paper topic. Depending on your topic, different degrees of age will be appropriate. For example,
if you are writing on 17th-century British poetry, it is not enough to simply find sources from the era, nor is adequate to reference only early 20th-century scholarly sources. Instead, it will be helpful to combine the older, primary sources with more recent, secondary scholarship. Doing so will make a convincing case for your particular argument. If you are researching public-health theories, however, your argument will depend on more modern scholarly sources. Older articles may include beliefs or facts that are outdated or have been proven wrong by more contemporary research.

With digital sources, be wary of sites with old, outdated information. The point is to avoid presenting inaccurate or outdated information that will negatively impact your paper.

Author Biases

Author bias is another consideration in choosing a source. “Author bias” means that the author feels strongly about the topic one way or another, which prevents the author from taking a neutral approach to presenting findings. For print sources, you can assess bias by considering the publisher of the book. Books published by a university press undergo significant editing and review to increase their validity and accuracy. Be cautious about self-published books or books published by specific organizations like corporations or nonprofit groups. Unlike university presses, these sources may have different guidelines and could be putting out information that is intentionally misleading or uninformed. Similarly, periodicals like scholarly journals or magazines may also have bias. However, scholarly journals tend to be peer-reviewed and contain citations of sources, whereas a magazine article may contain information without providing any sources to substantiate purported claims.

While you want to support your argument with your research, you don’t want to do so at the expense of accuracy or validity.

Online Resources

Websites, unlike books, do not necessarily have publishers. Instead, you should consider who is behind the websites you find. To avoid using information that comes from an unreliable source, stick to scholarly databases. While you can find some articles with general search engines, a search engine will only find non-scholarly articles. If you use broader Internet searches, look closely at domain names. Domain names can tell you who sponsors the site and the purpose of that sponsorship. Some examples include educational (.edu), commercial (.com), nonprofit (.org), military (.mil), or network (.net).

Depending on your topic, you may want to avoid dot-com websites because their primary purpose tends to be commerce, which can significantly affect the content that they publish. Additionally, consider the purpose that the website serves. Is any contact information provided for the website’s author? Does the website provide references to support the claims that it makes? If the answers to these types of questions are not readily available, it may be best to look in other places for a reliable source.

There are increasing numbers of non-scholarly sites that pertain to particular topics, but are not scholarly sources. Blogs, for example, may cater to a particular topic or niche, but they are typically created and managed by an individual or party with an interest in promoting the content of the blog. Some blog writers may have valid credentials, but because their writing is not peer-reviewed or held to an academic standard, sites such as these are typically unreliable sources.

Remember, when researching, the goal is not only to gather sources, but to gather reliable resources. To do this, you should be able to not only track the claims contained within a source, but also consider the stakes that may be involved for the author making those claims. While personal motivation may not always be accessible in a document, in some cases there can be contextual clues, like the type of publisher or sponsor. These may lead you to decide that one source is more reliable than another.


Money and magnifying glass: When you evaluate scholarly sources, look out for potential conflicts of interest and hidden agendas. For example, the sources of funding for research are very important, as they may influence the writers’ interpretation of results.

Scholarly Sources

In academic writing, the sources you use must be reliable; therefore, you should rely mainly on scholarly sources as the foundation for your research.

Learning Objectives

List the different types of scholarly sources available to researchers

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Not all sources are equal. One way to find reputable scholarly sources is to avoid using general search engines such as Google or Wikipedia.
  • Use academic search databases like JStor, EBSCO, or Academic Search Premier.
  • Primary sources give the researcher a glimpse into the time period under review and provide opportunities for new analysis.
  • In addition, do not hesitate to visit your library in order to ask your librarian about accessing these databases, and also in order to search for print materials.

Key Terms

  • primary source: A historical document that was created at or near the time of the events studied, by a known person, for a known purpose.
  • database: A collection of (usually) organized information in a regular structure, usually but not necessarily in a machine-readable format accessible by a computer.
  • secondary source: Any document that draws on one or more primary sources and interprets or analyses them; also, sources such as newspapers, whose accuracy is open to question.


Research is the foundation of a strong argument, theory, or analysis. When constructing your research paper, it is important to include reliable sources in your research. Without reliable sources, readers may question the validity of your argument and your paper will not achieve its purpose.

Academic research papers are typically based on scholarly sources and primary sources. Scholarly sources include a range of documents, source types, and formats, but they share an important quality: credibility. More than any other source you are likely to encounter during your research, a scholarly source is most likely to be reliable and accurate. Primary sources are documents that were written or created during the time period under study. They include letters, newspaper articles, photographs, and other artifacts that come directly from a particular time period.

Scholarly Sources

A scholarly source can be an article or book that was written by an expert in the academic field. Most are by professors or doctoral students for publication in peer-reviewed academic journals. Since the level of expertise and scrutiny is so high for these articles, they are considered to be among the best and most trustworthy sources. Most of these articles will list an author ‘s credentials, such as relevant degrees, other publications, or employment at a university or research institution. If an article does not, try searching for the author online to see how much expertise he or she has in the field.

You may decide to use sources that are not scholarly articles, such as interviews or newspaper articles. These sources should also be written by an expert in the field and published by a reputable source. An investigative essay in the New Yorker would be fine; an investigative essay in the National Enquirer would not.

Other types of scholarly sources include non-print media such as videos, documentaries, and radio broadcasts. Other sources may include tangible items such as artifacts, art, or architecture. It’s likely that you will find secondary sources that provide analysis of these sources, but you should also examine them to conduct your own analysis.

Primary and Secondary Sources

A primary source is an original document. Primary sources can come in many different forms. In an English paper, a primary source might be the poem, play, or novel you are studying. In a history paper, it may be a historical document such as a letter, a journal, a map, the transcription of a news broadcast, or the original results of a study conducted during the time period under review. If you conduct your own field research, such as surveys, interviews, or experiments, your results would also be considered a primary source. Primary sources are valuable because they provide the researcher with the information closest to the time period or topic at hand. They also allow the writer to conduct an original analysis of the source and to draw new conclusions.

Secondary sources, by contrast, are books and articles that analyze primary sources. They are valuable because they provide other scholars’ perspectives on primary sources. You can also analyze them to see if you agree with their conclusions or not.

Most essays will use a combination of primary and secondary sources.

Where to Find Scholarly Sources

The first step in finding good resources is to look in the right place. If you want reliable sources, avoid general search engines. Sites like Google, Yahoo, and Wikipedia may be good for general searches, but if you want something you can cite in a scholarly paper, you need to find it from a scholarly database.

Popular scholarly databases include JStor, Project Muse, the MLA International Bibliography, Academic Search Premier, and ProQuest. These databases do charge a fee to view articles, but most universities will pay for students to view the articles free of charge. Ask a librarian at your college about the databases to which they offer access.

Most journals will allow you to access electronic copies of articles if you find them through a database. This will not always be the case, however. If an article is listed in a database but can’t be downloaded to your computer, write down the citation anyway. Many libraries will have hard copies of journals, so if you know the author, date of publication, and page numbers, you can probably find a print edition of the source.

At the college or university level, you have another incredible resource at your fingertips: your college’s librarians! For help locating resources, you will find that librarians are extremely knowledgeable and may help you uncover sources you would never have found on your own—maybe your school has a microfilm collection, an extensive genealogy database, or access to another library’s catalog. You will not know unless you utilize the valuable skills available to you, so be sure to find out how to get in touch with a research librarian for support!

Examples of Scholarly Sources


Research: Looks like he’s found a good print source—though it may be too old for us to use today.

The exact combination or sources you use in your paper will depend on the discipline in which you are conducting research and the topic of your essay. Here are some examples of the types of sources you might include in a variety of academic fields.

  • Politics/Law: You could include text from the Constitution or a Supreme Court decision as a primary source, and you may include a scholarly article that discusses that decision as a secondary source.
  • Science: You may include findings from a scientific research study as a primary source, and you may include an article from a medical journal as a secondary source.
  • Arts/humanities: You may include a piece of artwork or writing as a primary source, and you may include a scholar’s critical analysis of that work as a secondary source.
  • History: You may include correspondence between historical figures as a primary source, and you may include information from a textbook as a secondary source.

These list of examples is meant to illustrate the range of approaches you may take when determining what sources to include in your paper, but it is not an exhaustive list of the possibilities available to you! The researcher’s ability to draw connections between a variety of sources is part of the art of research-paper writing, so you must decide on the best combination of scholarly sources for your essay.

Choosing Search Terms for Sources

Conducting searches related to the keywords or subheadings of your topic will help systematize your research.

Learning Objectives

Identify useful search terms given a research topic

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the course of your research, your initial keywords may reveal other avenues that could help further your research, especially in situations where the keywords are still vague.
  • You can search both online databases and actual library catalogs for sources. Catalogs and databases allow you to organize searches by subject headings and/or key terms.
  • The two options for narrowing your search are to use key terms or subject headings. Key terms are words that will appear frequently in the article. Subject headings are categories of articles grouped by theme.

Key Terms

  • database: A collection of (typically) organized information in a regular structure, usually but not necessarily in a machine-readable format accessible by a computer.
  • library catalog: A register of all bibliographic items found in a library or group of libraries, such as a network of libraries at several locations.

Before you start conducting your research, you should have created a research plan with a specific research question. In addition to this plan, you should begin your search with an objective in mind. What exactly are you looking for? Do you want facts, opinions, statistics, quotations? Is the purpose of your research to find a new idea, find factual information to support a position, or something else? Once you decide what you are looking for, it is much easier to look for sources in the correct places and with the correct words and phrases.

Once you have your research topic and you know which databases you want to search for articles, you need to determine the best way to go about searching. For starters, you can’t just type in a question like, “What were medical practices like during the Battle of Gettysburg?” Instead, you should search one of two ways. The first option is to use key terms, or words that will appear frequently in the article. The second is to use subject headings—categories of articles grouped by theme.

To search key terms, think about important words that will occur in sources you could use. Then, type one or two of those terms into the search bar. Most search engines will generate results based on how frequently those words appear in articles and their abstracts.

Let’s use our topic from the previous section, medical practices at the Battle of Gettysburg, as an example. You might choose keywords like “amputation,” “field medicine,” and “Gettysburg.” This should yield articles that discuss amputations on the field during the Battle of Gettysburg. You could also search something like “anesthesia” and “Civil War,” which would lead you to articles about anesthetics during the war.

While searching with key terms, you may need to get creative. Some articles will use different language than you might expect, so try a variety of related terms to make sure you’re getting back all the possible results.


A lot of options: Phrase your search terms as specifically as possible, so that you only find relevant sources.