Starting your research off on the right foot means working with a good topic
and supporting it with the best sources around. Just as you are picky about what you eat or what you spend your money on, you have to be careful about where you get your knowledge from. No one wants to spend precious time fumbling through sources that will inevitably be of no real use. Not only will this delay the entire research process but the mental exhaustion is hard to compensate for.
So to avoid this, the wise student goes to work with a plan in mind. This plan will allow him or her to strategically select the right information from the abundance of sources that may be available on any one topic. And in doing so one of the first questions that should be asked is...
What are the right sources?
Well to start off, let's define the term 'right.' In a nutshell, the right sources are the ones that will work best for your paper-allowing you to satisfy your main objective. But along with this (and probably the thought that comes to most people's minds when they think about the right sources), the right sources are also ones that can be clearly distinguished from the 'wrong' or 'bad' ones. Usually referring to sources that are not reliable or credible; that is, their content is difficult to verify and/or their quality and merit is questionable.
Concerning the first definition-sources that will help you satisfy your main objective,
It may be helpful to spell out exactly what you're looking for when it comes to compiling data for your paper; the following is a helpful illustration:
"I want sources that will..."
- help me better define my topic (for preliminary or background research ex. dictionaries, encyclopedias etc.)
- give me the answers I need for my research question (a variety of primary and secondary sources; ex. journals, books, documents, transcripts etc.)
- cover the range or scope of my topic (that is, is relevant to the timeframe that I am interested in and the different sub-topics that I need to write about)
- provide an objective view (isn't one-sided about an issue unless I'm specifically looking for a subjective view on the topic)
So by looking for materials that match the above description you have taken the first step to identifying the right sources for your paper. Now the second definition is a source that is credible and reliable. But how is credibility and reliability determined?
The reliable and the credible
In most cases when these two words are used to describe references or paper sources
, they are referring to information that is found in published works that have their own reputable sources, authoritative voice (composed by a qualified professional for instance), or have been peer-reviewed by a board or committee. Though all credible sources may not fall under one of these categories, when sifting through information for your paper, you'll want something along these lines because they address the qualities of good source. More information on this can be found below.
Qualities of a good source
Written by an authoritative source
The definition of authoritative varies. But generally it means that the person is qualified to speak on a particular topic. The author doesn't necessarily need a PhD, but should at least confirm some type of credentials to establish their authority on the subject or experience in the field.
References other sources in-text or at the end of the publication
What does a good news story bring? Facts and sources. Whether its a quote or a statistic, a news article will almost always indicate its source. This point alone can be the best indicator of whether or not a source is reliable and credible.
Is current and up-to-date
Time sensitivity should be weighed against the scope of your paper and the nature of your subject. For instance, if you don't have a need for the most recent discoveries or findings on a particular subject you may not need something current and up-to-date. Though even with this you may want to set a general range for yourself; say for instance nothing more than 10 or 15 years old.
Relevant to your thesis
This is a very important point to take note of. Remember that even if a source has all the other qualities listed above, if its not relevant to your thesis
then its not a good source! Something to think about when you have a lot of polished articles to review for your paper-know when to let go of articles or books that will not directly support your overall objective.
In addition to knowing the qualities of a good source, actually landing the 'right' ones often has to do with how well you can evaluate each. Though some of the steps to evaluating a source mirror the issues previously addressed, understanding them as an actual procedure rather than traits may make it a bit easier to land those 'right' ones early on.
Why is it important to evaluate each source?
The short answer is to save yourself a lot of time and headache. But a more acceptable reason would be that since a research paper
is a formal document it needs to adhere to certain academic guidelines; one of which is to contain credible and reputable sources. Therefore its part of your duty as a student to evaluate each source to ensure that it meets those guidelines.
How to evaluate a source in 3 easy steps
Step 1: Look for ownership
This means authorship, sponsorship or affiliations. Immediately find out who will take responsibility for the information that is being presented. If its a website read their about page, and if its a print publication look around it to find out more information on the authors and or affiliated organization.
Step 2: Identify its purpose
Objectivity is important. You need to know whether or not the information you've obtained is written according to a bias point of view or a neutral one. Try to understand the purpose or intention of the work. Usually the information that you come across in journal articles, databases, or books, will be intended for educational or informational purposes. Though this is not always the case. Especially with online articles, you'll find that some information may only be presented as a sales pitch while others may be extremely bias towards one point of view.
Step 3: Check the publication date and edition
Remember, as stated earlier, time may not be crucial for all topics. But for ones in need of up-to-date information, its necessary to check to see if you have a recent publication or the latest edition available.
*Other things to consider may also be whether or not the source is appropriate for a research paper. This is easy to determine as teachers or professors usually value information from well-known organizations, peer-reviewed journals, or qualified individuals in the field. And lastly, after going through all the evaluative steps, don't forget to consider whether or not a source will truly aid you in constructing your paper; as this one surpasses all the rest.