Locating and Evaluating Materials
As you search for sources on your topic, it’s important to make a plan for that research process. You should develop a research strategy that fits within your assignment expectations and considers your source requirements. Your research strategy should be based on the research requirements your professor provides. Some formal research essays should include peer reviewed journal articles only; however, there are some research papers that may allow you to use a wider variety of sources, including sources from the World Wide Web. (24)
Databases can help you to identify and secure information across a range of subjects. Such information might include a chapter in a book, an article in a journal, a report, or a government document. Databases are a researcher’s best friend, but it can take a little time to get used to searching for sources in your library’s databases. Be prepared to spend some time getting comfortable with the databases you’re working in, and be prepared to ask questions of your professor and librarians if you feel stuck.
Becoming adept at searching online databases will give you the confidence and skills you need to gather the best sources for your project.
Your online college library can help you learn how to select search terms and understand which database would be the most appropriate for your project. College libraries will require login information from students in order to access database resources.
The Florida State College at Jacksonville Library is accessible online. Some of the stronger resources for information on matters of American public controversy include The CQ Researcher and Issues and Controversies . To find these resources, click on “Databases by Subject” at the top of the screen and navigate to the “News and Current Events” field. You will find these resources among many that might be suitable for furnishing materials for your essay. (25)
Web research can be an important part of your research process. However, be careful that you use only the highest quality sources that are returned on your general web search. Your paper is only as good as the sources you use within it, so if you use sources which are not written by experts in their field, you may be including misinformed or incorrect information in your paper.
As a general rule, one site to avoid is Wikipedia, which is not considered a quality source for academic writing. While this site is fine for looking up information in a casual way and gaining a better understanding of a subject, it is not recommended for academic writing since information can sometimes be incorrect since the content is user-generated, rather than peer-reviewed and written by experts; peer-reviewed resources and works written by experts can be found in academic journals, news articles, magazines, or published books. Wikipedia is also considered more of a “general knowledge” source, and academic writing favors sources with more specific information.
Still, when you are researching on the web, search engines are effective tools for locating web pages relevant to your research, and they can save you time and frustration. However, for searches to yield the best results, you need a strategy and some basic knowledge of how search engines work. Without a clear search strategy, using a search engine is like wandering aimlessly in a field of corn looking for the perfect ear.
Locating useful resources for academic writing on the Internet can sometimes become a frustrating task due to the amount of commercial content and misleading or erroneous material available on the World Wide Web. Students should consider the following strategies when using search engines on the Internet:
- Many popular search engines such as Yahoo rank their results based on commercial interests. Therefore, some of the most applicable materials, such as those hosted on the Web sites of colleges and universities, are frequently located well beyond the first page of results. Take some time to explore your findings beyond the top two or three listed in any given search.
- Consider using dedicated research sites such as iSEEK Education, Refseek, and Google Scholar to begin your research queries. Many of these services effectively filter the commercial content from the results, saving you time and aggravation.
- Google filters its search findings based on relevance instead of commercial influence. The number of links and the amount of user engagement with a site figure heavily in how Google ranks individual Web sites. If you are going to use a general search engine, Google will likely yield more useful results for you than many of the search engines that tie search results to commercial interests. (26)
As you gather sources for your research, you’ll need to know how to assess the validity and reliability of the materials you find.
Keep in mind that the sources you find have all been put out there by groups, organizations, corporations, or individuals who have some motivation for getting this information to you. To be a good researcher, you need to learn how to assess the materials you find and determine their reliability—before deciding if you want to use them and, if so, how you want to use them.
Whether you are examining material in books, journals, magazines, newspapers, or websites, you want to consider several issues before deciding if and how to use the material you have found.
- Authorship and Authority
- Timeliness (27)
Does the source fit your needs and purpose?
Before you start amassing large amounts of research materials, think about the types of materials you will need to meet the specific requirements of your project.
Encyclopedias, general interest magazines ( Time , Newsweek online), or online general news sites (CNN, MSNBC) are good places to begin your research to get an overview of your topic and the big questions associated with your particular project. But once you get to the paper itself, you may not want to use these for your main sources.
Focused Lay Materials
For a college-level research paper, you need to look for books, journal articles, and websites that are put out by organizations that do in-depth work for the general public on issues related to your topic. For example, an article on the melting of the polar icecaps in Time magazine offers you an overview of the issue. But such articles are generally written by non-scientists for a non-scientific audience that wants a general—not an in-depth—understanding of the issue. Although you’ll want to start with overview materials to give yourself the broad-stroke understanding of your topic, you’ll soon need to move to journals and websites in the field. For example, instead of looking at online stories on the icecaps from CNN, you should look at the materials at the website for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) or reports found at the website for the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). You also should look at some of the recent reports on the polar icecaps in Scientific American or The Ecologist .
If you already have a strong background in your topic area, you could venture into specialists’ books, journals, and websites. For example, only someone with a strong background in the field would be able to read and understand the papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences . Sources such as these are suitable for more advanced research paper assignments in upper-level courses, but you may encounter source requirements like these in freshman writing courses. (28)
Authorship and Authority
As you begin to compile your research materials, remain vigilant about the background of the authors you are using. You will want to use credible, authoritative resources. Look for affiliations to universities or colleges, professional credentials, and associations with reputable agencies.
Some useful articles will not include an author. These are considered to be written by a “corporate” author, which means that they represent the thoughts or viewpoints of an organization. Use your best judgment on whether to use these resources in your research essay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic, for instance, both have many articles of this sort on their sites.
In terms of the parenthetical citation, you would just cite the title of the article instead of the author’s name. If it is a particularly long title, just use the first two words and an ellipsis to cite the resource. For instance, the CDC page “Common Public Health Issues” would be truncated to the following citation (“Common Public…”) in the body of an essay.
Alphabetize any articles written by a corporate author as you will your other resources in your final list of Works Cited. (1)
Evaluating Sources: Documentation
Where does the book, article, or website get its information?
Look for a bibliography and/or footnotes. In a piece of writing that is making a case using data, historical or scientific references, or appeals to outside sources of any kind, those sources should be thoroughly documented. The writer should give you enough information to go and find those sources yourself and double-check that the materials are used accurately and fairly by the author.
Popular news magazines, such as Time or Newsweek online, will generally not have formal bibliographies or footnotes with their articles. The writers of these articles will usually identify their sources within their texts, referring to studies, officials, or other texts. These types of articles, though not considered academic, may be acceptable for some undergraduate college-level research papers. Check with your instructor to make sure that these types of materials are allowed as sources in your paper.
Examine the sources used by the author. Is the author depending heavily on just one or two sources for his or her entire argument? That’s a red flag for you. Is the author relying heavily on anonymous sources? There’s another red flag. Are the sources outdated? Another red flag.
If references to outside materials are missing or scant, you should treat this piece of writing with skepticism. Consider finding an alternative source with better documentation. (29)
Is the material up-to-date?
The best research draws on the most current work in the field. That said, depending on the discipline, some work has a longer shelf life than others. For example, important articles in literature, art, and music often tend to be considered current for years, or even decades, after publication. Articles in the physical sciences, however, are usually considered outdated within a year or two (or even sooner) after publication.
In choosing your materials, you need to think about the argument you’re making and the field (discipline) within which you’re making it.
For example, if you’re arguing that climate change is indeed anthropogenic (human-caused), do you want to use articles published more than four or five years ago? No. Because the science has evolved very rapidly on that question, you need to depend most heavily on research published within the last year or two.
However, suppose you’re arguing that blues music evolved from the field songs of American slaves. In this case, you should not only look at recent writing on the topic (within the last five years), but also look at historical assessments of the relationship between blues and slavery from previous decades.
Timeliness and Websites
Scrutinize websites, in particular, for dates of posting or for the last time the site was updated. Some sites have been left up for months or years without the site’s owner returning to update or monitor the site. If sites appear to have no regular oversight, you should look for alternative materials for your paper. (30)