When choosing sources for your research, remember that the quality of your source will directly affect the quality of your research. There are differences between a scholarly and a popular source, and different projects require different kinds of sources. Committing extra time to your pre-writing research (i.e., not relying on the first web search you plug into your search engine) will pay off in the long run. The better the source, the better the evidence you will be using to prove your point. Work smarter, not harder.
Navigating Online Sources
Whether you use a library catalogue, online database, or the web, you need to carefully sort your search returns:
Too many results?
Refine your search terms. Be more specific by adding adjectives (change “Shakespeare and islands” to “Shakespeare and Italian islands” or “Shakespeare and Venice”). Scan your results to find keywords that you can use to refine your search terms. Too many blogs or unofficial/unscholarly web results? (see chart on second page) Refine your search parameters. Change your search parameters by looking for an “Advanced Search” option, limiting date or language results.
Too many blogs or unofficial/unscholarly web results? (see chart on second page) Refine your search parameters. Change your search parameters by looking for an “Advanced Search” option, limiting date or language results.
Should you Google?
Refine your web search technique. Start with a Google or Bing search, just to see what’s widely available, but then point your browser to a more reputable or academic search engine: Google Scholar, your school library site, or a specialist site in your field (such as a journal’s search page) will provide sources that are worth your time and attention. While Wikipedia is not always reliable, the end of a Wikipedia page may feature a list of worthy sources.
Primary, Secondary, Tertiary (“third-level”) Sources
There is a distinction among sources that are primary, secondary, or tertiary.
• Primary sources are original texts, with no one else’s opinion standing between you and the author.
o Ex: letters written by Charles Dickens, a Shakespeare folio version of a play, or a governmental decree.
• Secondary sources are commentaries on primary sources, with someone else giving you his/her opinion or “reading” of that material.
o Ex: a newspaper review of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a scholarly article about Shakespeare’s Othello, or a book on the reception of governmental decrees in seventeenth-century England.
• Tertiary sources are collections of secondary sources, with someone collecting and combining information on a general scale that may not be very detailed. While tertiary sources give you an idea of a topic’s scope, they are poor sources to cite, and most instructors expect you to use primary and secondary sources in your final paper.
o Ex: an encyclopedia article called “Charles Dickens,” the Wikipedia site on “William Shakespeare,” or the dictionary entry for “decrees.”
Be especially wary of sites that allow anyone to post content as such sites are neither scholarly nor protected.
Scholarly vs. Popular Sources
You may be asked to cite only “scholarly” or “academic” sources in your papers. Scholarly sources, as opposed to most popular sources, are written by an expert who is part of a respected academic or research institution. The process of publishing a scholarly source is rigorously regulated, so scholarly sources are usually better sources to cite in your paper. Here is a comparison between scholarly and popular sources, with suggested questions to ask as you evaluate sources:
• Written by experts (academics or scientists)
• In-depth coverage
• “Refereed” or “Peer-reviewed”
• Formal language
• Footnotes, bibliography
• Unknown author Is this person an expert?
• General coverage Is this source thorough?
• Unclear or absent review process Who is checking this info?
• Informal or colloquial language Who is the intended audience?
• No citations Where does this info come from?
Where in The Bedford Handbook?
Sections 46 and 47, Conducting Research (especially 46c - Refining keyword searches in databases and search engines, and 47b - Select Sources worth your time and attention).