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Research Tips

Consider the Source

Scholarly Journals report on research in a particular discipline. The articles may be peer-reviewed by other scholars to verify accuracy and validity. Examples: Journal of Educational Psychology, Nature, Journal of Roman Studies

Trade Journals provide information of use to a field/industry, and are usually not research-based. The articles are not peer-reviewed. Contents include tips and tools for practitioners and innovations in a field. Example: Instructor, Live Design

Popular Journals/Magazines usually focus on current topics for a general reader and are not research-based. Examples: Time, The New Yorker, Popular Mechanics 

News Sources are ideally (though not perfectly) unbiased accounts of current events. Examples: The New York Times, BBC - News

Government Documents are materials authored by various governmental agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Education. Example: Mapping Illinois' Educational Progress (2008)

Evidentiary Value of Sources

Just as there are different types of sources - newspapers, books, images, etc. - each source does not have the same evidentiary weight or value.

When considering how useful a resource is to your own research, you will want to consider several factors including:

  • when the resource was published; 
  • who the author of the article is and whether her work is written from an objective or biased perspective; 
  • who funded the research under discussion; 
  • whether factual assertions are accompanied by footnotes or other references.

To see a more complete list of the types of factors you should consider when deciding whether or not to use a resource, please go here.

Primary vs Secondary Sources

A primary source is an original resource that is contemporaneous with the time period being studied.  Scholars and researchers use primary sources in their work as building blocks in an evaluation or interpretation of an event, a time period, or a specific subject.

Unlike primary sources, secondary sources are not necessarily contemporaneous with the issue or research being discussed. Secondary sources involve looking at past findings and evidence and using these tools to build a discussion around a given theme, issue, person, or place. 

For example, let's imagine we were studying the role that religion played in America's antislavery movement of the 19th century.

The diary of an antislavery activist from this time period would be a primary source.

A 20th century article that uses this diary, among other resources, to posit and substantiate an original claim that religion was THE motivating factor in the antislavery crusade would be a secondary source.

In our example, the journal article was a secondary source. Does this mean you can always assume that an article is a secondary source? NO!!!

The format or look of a source - whether book, film, article, etc. - does not dictate whether the source is primary or secondary. Your use of any resource dictates whether it is functioning as a primary or secondary source, and different disciplines use different types of resources in different ways.