Research for Technical Report Writing

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to: 

  • Identify various formats in which information can be found
  • Understand when it is appropriate to utilize various source types based  on your specific information needs 


What is a Source?

In your courses, you may hear your professors refer to 'sources of information'. They may even specify what types of sources that you should use in your assignments. But what do we mean when we say sources? Information can be found in an incredibly wide variety of types, formats and styles. This can include anything from other people, to text, to video and everything found in between. Anything that provides information or material that informs your thoughts on a topic can be considered a source of information. 

Each source type has a specific role in research and may be more or less useful for you depending on your specific research context. It is important to understand the different sources of information and what you can gain from them. Prior to starting your research, make sure that you consider your information needs. Are you looking for more of a topic overview / general information? Or do you need in-depth, detailed information on your topic? Having these considerations in mind will allow you to create an appropriate research plan and will ultimately make your research process easier. 

There are many different ways in which sources can be categorized. Below we will describe two of these possible categorizations which are commonly referred to in academia: primary sources vs secondary sources & scholarly sources vs professional sources vs popular sources

Primary & Secondary Sources

One way of categorizing source types is either as primary sources, secondary sources, or tertiary sources. These categories are based off of how close the researcher/author is to the subject/topic within the information source. To learn more about primary and secondary sources, as well as some examples sources of each, please watch the video below. 


Video coming shortly. 


If you wish to learn even more about this categorization of source types, please view the Types of Sources PDF handout provided by SASS. 

Scholarly VS Professional VS Popular Sources

A second categorization of information sources includes scholarly sources vs professional or trade sources vs popular sources. These categories refer to the specific audience for which they are being produced. 

Scholarly sources are typically written by an expert, on their own original research, for an audience of other experts. Because of this, they often include discipline specific jargon and terminology that make it harder for non-experts to understand. At the end of the source, you will find a bibliography containing the full references of all of the other sources used to support their claims. Many scholarly sources have gone through a peer-review process (described in detail further down on the page). 

Professional or trade sources are typically written by practitioners within a specific field, for other practitioners in that field. Because of this, they often use the terminology and language that is commonly used within the field, but may not be common knowledge to the general public. While scholarly sources usually focus more on theory or academic research, professional sources focus on current practices and developments in the field. At the end of the source you may find a bibliography, however it will not be an extensive as in scholarly publications.

Popular sources are typically written by non-experts (journalists or writers) for the general public. Since it is being produced for a more general audience, they do not use discipline specific terminology and do not assume that you have any prior knowledge of the subject. As a result, they are typically much easier to understand. Depending on the type of popular source, they may refer to scholarly sources, however they do not usually contain a full bibliography. 

Common Sources Used in Science and Engineering

Undergraduate assignments in the sciences and engineering typically depend on the use of text-based sources. Below we have given a brief description of common types of sources that you might come across in your research, as well as when and why you might want to use them. 


  • What are they? Encyclopedias are a type of reference work that is usually either found in the form of a book or a whole series of books. They typically consist of short entries written by experts on the topic. Encyclopedias can either be general (giving short summaries on a wide range of topics) or subject specific (providing in-depth entries related to a particular field of study). 
  • When and why to use them? Encyclopedias are a great way to start your research. They help to provide background information on the topic and can help to clarify key concepts and researchers. 

Books & Textbooks

  • What are they? Books provide a longer, more in-depth and comprehensive coverage of a subject area. Due to the fact that books have quite a long publishing process they do not contain the most up-to-date information. Books can either be in print or in electronic format (which might also be referred to as an ebook). 
  • When and why to use them? Because of their level of detail and coverage of an entire subject area, they are wonderful sources to develop an overview of the area and learn the about the history and previous previous developments within the field. When you are beginning your research, books can be an excellent way to introduce yourself to the subject area and help you to develop the background knowledge that will allow you to familiarize yourself with the area before proceeding with your research. 

Research Articles

  • What are they? Research (or academic) articles are reports that are focused around one small aspect of a subject area. They are written by expert researchers for other expert researchers. As a result, they usually include jargon and discipline specific terminology that make the article harder to understand if you are not already knowledgeable in this area. They typically consist of original research and are written directly by the associated researcher(s). This is one of the main ways in which researchers will share their research findings with the field at large. Because of this, they will include detailed information about the methods, and results of the study, as well as a full bibliography containing other related sources that were used within the report. Because of the shorter publication period they are usually much more up-to-date than books. In scholarly journals, articles will often go through a peer review process (see the following section to learn more about this). Articles can be in print or in electronic format, although electronic is much more common. 
  • When and why to use them? Since articles are one of the main ways in which researchers share their findings with others, and the relatively up-to-date information that they provide, they are the source that you will want to use when doing the main research for your reports. They will contain the level of detail and specificity required to help you to answer the research question that you have developed. Additionally, choosing peer-reviewed articles will help to ensure the level of quality of the information you are using as opposed to general web-sources. 

Theses & Dissertations

  • What are they? This is the report produced as the end result of a student's research while in a university program (typically the end result of a graduate degree, but may also be completed as part of some undergraduate degrees). These reports are usually kept in institutional repositories (such as uOResearch) but are not published in journals. As a result, they do not go through a peer-review process, although they are written under the guidance of a faculty member and go through a review process in front of an academic committee. 

Conference Proceedings

  • What are they? Conference proceedings consist of papers, research and information that has been presented and released at conferences. This is where the newest and most up-to-date information from a field of research is presented. Often researchers will first present their findings at a conference and then later publish them as a research article. These conference proceedings may be peer-reviewed depending on the specific conference and publication. 
  • When and why to use them? If you are doing research on a very active field of study, with many new developments being presented, conference proceedings would be an excellent way to get the most recent information. 

Trade magazines

  • What are they? Trade magazines contain articles that are geared towards professionals working in a particular field. These articles are often written by practitioners for other practitioners. They will typically focus more on current practices and challenges that are being seen in the workplace rather than on academic research. 
  • When and why to use them? You may want to use trade magazines if your specific research question deals with the practices, challenges or issues seen in the workplace. Having a look at these publications will be able to give you some context as to the professionals point of view. 

Government Publications 

  • What are they? Government publications include any information disseminated by the government, either on the local, provincial, national or international level. This could include information such as laws, regulations, research reports, factsheets and much more. 
  • When and why to use them? Government publications may be beneficial to your research in your topic can be impacted by government decisions. 

Newspapers articles

  • What are they? Newspaper articles are written by journalists and professional writers for the general public. They will usually centre on current events on an international, national, or local level. Newspapers can be published daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly. 
  • When and why to use them? Newspaper articles may serve as a way to come up with a research topic that is relevant in current society. They can also serve as valuable sources to view public opinion and to get first-hand accounts of certain events. 

Popular magazines 

  • What are they? Popular magazines contain articles written by professional writers for the general public. Typically the articles are shorter in length and may feature some photos. They usually serve a dual purpose of both entertainment and educational. They do not usually have a full bibliography but may mention the academic research. It is usually best practice to visit the studies mentioned rather than use the information provided by the article directly.
  • When and why to use them? They can be very helpful to introduce you to topics that you may not be as familiar with, as they are written in an easy to understand manner. Additionally they can help to provide insight on how society views the topic. 

The Ins and Outs of Peer-Review

Peer reviewed refers to works that have been evaluated by a committee of professional peers using rigorous selection standards prior to publication.


Some databases and Search+ will allow you to limit your results to only peer-reviewed content.  However, this function does not appear in all databases, which can make it difficult to distinguish peer-reviewed articles from other types of articles in the results list. 


How can you determine if an article has been peer-reviewed?

  • On the article itself, look for submission and acceptance dates for an article
  • For a journal, look the cover info to determine the presence of an editorial board or committee.
  • Search Ulrich's Periodical Directory by journal title or ISSN
    • In the record look for the field referred to determine if the journal is peer-reviewed.

If it is still not clear, contact a science & engineering librarian for help.