By the end of this section, you should be able to:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Books & Textbooks
Theses & Dissertations
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.