By the end of this section, you should be able to:
In your courses, you may hear your professors refer to 'sources of information'. 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 created 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:
What is a primary source?
A primary source is a piece of evidence. It is a by-product of an event, or a recording of an event as it happened. Here are some examples:
In the humanities, a primary source could be: correspondences, interviews, manuscripts, newspapers, novels, paintings, period artifacts, photographs, statistics, surveys, testimonies, videos, etc.
In the sciences, a primary source could be: articles detailing an original study, case notes or report forms, clinical exams, experimental protocols, industrial drawings, raw data or results, etc.
Why use a primary source?
Primary sources allow direct entry into a historical event or pieces of evidence. Sometimes they are difficult to understand. Having even a surface understanding of the context in which they were produced helps to interpret primary sources.
What is a secondary source?
Secondary sources, also called academic sources or scientific sources, are analytical documents that interpret primary sources. They are created by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you're researching.
They include books, electronic resources, memoirs, monographs, peer-reviewed articles, theses.
Why use a secondary source?
You will be asked to use secondary sources to support your ideas and arguments when writing any academic papers. Since they are often written by experts to review, analyze, explain or interpret primary sources, they will help you understand a topic and provide you with different perspectives. Remember that not all secondary sources are considered scholarly or academic.
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 as 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.
Peer-reviewed journals are academic research journals that contain articles in which an editorial committee has reviewed articles for submission without knowing the authors (blind review).
To confirm that a journal is peer-reviewed look for submission and acceptance dates for an article, or at the cover info of the journal to determine the presence of an editorial board or committee.
Many databases provide the option to limit to scholarly /academic/ peer-reviewed journals during the search process.
Scholarly articles are not found in newspapers or popular magazines. If your topic is current there may be few.
Academic/scholarly journals can also be recognized by other characteristics: