It is difficult to write or present a convincing argument if adequate research to support your statement(s) has not been first completed. Using a variety of sources shows that the information being presented is accurate and therefore, is more trustworthy. Proper research can be a lot more complicated than it seems, though; there are a variety of sources from which to choose, and where you find these sources matters as well.
Types of Sources
It is important to consider when doing research the type of source you would like to use. There are three main types of sources that can be arranged into a hierarchy.
First, are the primary sources; these are the first-hand reports of events or information. A person’s diary, a photograph of an event, or an original study all qualify as primary sources.
Next, there are secondary sources, which come from the consolidation of a large number of primary sources. Examples of secondary sources are textbooks and/or journal articles where the event is referenced as viewed by people who were present for the event.
Finally there are the tertiary sources. This type of source is not widely known, but it is still equally as important as primary and secondary sources. Encyclopedias and big compilations like dictionaries all qualify tertiary sources: sources that contain information from a lot of primary and secondary sources in one place.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Source Type
Every type of source has their own pros and cons. Primary sources, to start, are highly prized for their pure, first-hand account of event. These sources have not been distorted by modern opinions and they show the opinions and values of those who lived through these events. One main issue with primary sources is that people often place their own opinions too heavily into any work that they do for themselves.
Secondary sources make an effort to better explain a situation, but these sources are generally created well after an event has taken place. It is because of this delay that this type of source might not provide an accurate account of what people believed at the time of the event. Due to the combination of viewpoints, secondary sources can provide a more objective view of past events.
Finally, we arrive at the tertiary sources. While the information that tertiary sources contain is almost certainly true, it becomes very “watered down” due to mixing both primary and secondary sources together. This mixture makes it hard research from tertiary sources, but they do offer a good overview on a subject before going more in-depth into an issue.
Why is Citation Important?
Whenever you use information from a source in your work, it is important to remember to cite it, and to cite it properly. If you do not properly cite your research, your work will give the false impression that you came up with the information on your own. You are also plagiarising when you do not give credit where credit is due, and plagiarism is often punishable by suspension or expulsion from school.
Although it can be a headache, it is important be consistent with the citation style you use in each piece of work. There are many different citation styles and when you use them often depends on the subject about which you are writing. Three of the most popular styles are:
- Chicago Manual of Style. The Chicago style is most commonly used in history, as well as economics and other social sciences. This is largely because of its versatility, which is important when using many different types of sources (i.e. books, articles, encyclopedias, etc.)
- American Psychological Association (APA style). The APA style is most commonly used in the social sciences, but it may also be used for general science because citing scientific studies is made easy due to APA’s straight-forward layout.
- Modern Language Association (MLA style). The MLA style is most commonly used in English and literature studies because it is best suited to literary sources and those from archives.
Make sure that you know which style you are supposed use for each project that you do. Most of the time, the instructor of your course will have a specific style that they want you to use. If you cannot keep track of all the different methods of citation, there are some tools that you can use to help. There are plenty of websites that will create the citation for you, provided you enter all of the information correctly. Websites like EasyBib and BibMe require that you enter the author(s), the publication date, the edition number, the page number, etc. and it will be able to generate a complete and correct citation in a variety of formats. Also, it is a good idea to write up your citations while you are still doing research; it not only allows you to find out in plenty of time whether or not your source is reputable, but it also saves time when finishing up an assignment.
As important as citations are, there is some information that does not need to be cited. It is therefore very important to be able to tell what information must be cited and what information does not need to be cited. Anything that you write in your assignment that someone else said (something that came directly from a source) must be surrounded by quotation marks and most definitely requires a citation. This is information that is not common knowledge – you did not come up with it on your own – and if you are quoting someone, stating who they are actually adds value to the quotation. If you are paraphrasing something to avoid the use of quotation marks, you must cite the paraphrased sentence(s). If you are really not sure as to whether or not you need to cite a source, cite it anyway. There is no real harm in over-citing.
One of the biggest advantages to using a book as a source is that not just anyone can publish a book. Although self-publishing is on the rise, it is difficult for the average person to distribute copies of a book that they have written. Because of this, some level of credibility is necessary to publish a book and thus, some credibility can be assumed if a book is your source. While some books do not contain good or accurate information, many do. Still, it is a good idea to research the author and the publisher of a book that you may want to use as a source, just to ensure that their academic reputation is creditable.
Despite the clear benefits of using a book as a source, there are also some downsides. One of those downsides is that it can be difficult to find specific information from a book; you may have to search through hundreds of pages to find one paragraph that is relevant to your assignment. This is very different from collecting sources through an internet database on the computer, which can often be done in mere minutes.
Students are beginning to use documents found online as their main source of research and information. While the validity of some online sources can be questioned, online sources in general are unparalleled when it comes to easy use and the speed with which information can be found.
There are, of course, certain issues with relying entirely on online sources. While it takes a certified team to publish something in a book, this is not the case on the Internet; anyone can publish anything wherever they want with very little cost to themselves. A book must go through a rigorous editing process before a publisher will consider publishing it, and not all online sources abide by this same practice. It is very important to make sure that all of your sources are reputable and are not just another person’s opinion.
Finding the perfect online source can be challenging at first but once you get the hang of where and how to search for them, they are quite easy and convenient to use. Online sources can be searched for key phrases, titles, authors’ names, and more, allowing you to quickly find important documents and/or information. Let’s say, for example, that you remember a quote but you do not recall the context – search it within the document and you will soon find the information that you need! These online articles and documents can also be stored in the same place on one device, which saves you the trouble of having to search for all of your information over and over again.
One of the biggest advantages of using online sources is the ease of accessing them through online databases. They allow you to search not only titles and authors, but also keywords and phrases to help you find all the sources relevant to your topic. Most databases have filters so that only peer-reviewed journals and articles will be shown, which is a quick way to determine whether or not a journal or article is academically valid. If a document has been peer-reviewed, that means that other academics have read it and approved it as a valid source of academic information. Databases may also allow you access to sources that would otherwise not be found anywhere else, such as very old documents or books.
The ability to get automatically generated citations also exists within some databases. Journals are often saved onto databases with their citations already complete, adding ease to the researcher’s task.
Most schools will pay fees to allow their students to have access to multiple useful databases. The only downside to databases is the case where access is not provided by your school. Full access to journals and articles come with paying the fee to use the database, otherwise in many cases, only the abstract or the first section of a document is available.
Encyclopedias, Online or Otherwise
Due to the broadness of its information, research often begins with an encyclopedia. Whether it’s Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica, they are great places to collect initial information. They provide an introduction to a variety of topics and they often give links or references to similar topics. The value of an encyclopedia is often overestimated by researching students, since many students do not realize that anyone can post onto many online encyclopedias, such as Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not a credible source of information and if it must be used at all, it should only be used in the introductory stages of information gathering to get a general sense of the topic at hand.
An encyclopedia generally only has a small bit of information on each topic, and citing an encyclopedia is not recommended for this very reason. Wikipedia may give you some insight into what facts have been established as true, but it will not offer much validity in its facts. Encyclopedias also sometimes contain citations within the article, which could lead you to sources that will be of actual use to you. In sum, online encyclopedias provide an excellent starting place, but they should not be used as the sole or even as the main research source in your work.
There are a number of periodical sources of information that can be popular. Academic journals and newspapers provide new articles or papers on a regular basis. This regularity may cause you to think that they are reputable and respected sources, and this is just not always the case.
Academic journals are often your best bet when it comes to using the best possible resource; generally, they require a rigorous peer review process before they have a hope of being published. Overall, it is important that you look into the reputation of a journal, and not just the author of the individual paper, before you can trust a source.
Newspapers also have their own set of weaknesses. There are always those news stories that will be published for the sole purpose of “selling the story”. These articles may be utterly valueless when it comes to actual information and research potential. Finally, privately owned newspapers may have their own biases. Certain politically charged events may be portrayed in a false light, depending on the opinion of those involved.
When writing papers, doing assignments, or doing anything that involves using someone else’s ideas to back up your own points and arguments, knowing how to look for sources and how to use them can be a life saver. Though some sources are more accredited than others, and all sources certainly have their own set of advantages and disadvantages, most sources provide at least a starting point for research that can be quite useful. Whether you read a book, browse online databases, or peruse through an encyclopedia, you can use the ideas that you find to help support your own ideas.
So, what are you waiting for? Start that research paper that you’ve been putting off, finish that assignment, write a full and complete works cited page… with all that has been said, you are presented with one final piece of advice: go to it!
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