Discerning sources to be used in a formal research paper or essay is one of the most crucial aspects of writing. Not all sources are reputable nor do they carry equal weight. This is true for print sources (books and journals) as well as internet websites. While the task of determining the reliability of sources may seem monumental, certain precautions will ensure that referenced material carries authority.
Books and Encyclopedias
When cataloging books obtained for research, begin with the author and publisher. To what extent does the author have expertise in the subject? A biography on Thomas Jefferson written by a college professor may carry more weight than a similar book written by someone without academic credentials tied to American History. Barbara Tuchman, a notable exception, never took a degree in history yet her books, written for the mass public, are meticulously researched and documented.
Determining whether a book is an acceptable source can be based on several observable elements:
Can you obtain a brief biography of the author, either from the dust jacket or the internet?
What primary and secondary sources were used by the author?
Is there a bibliography and an index?
Who published the book?
Mass media encyclopedias such as World Book and Britannica should not be used as paper sources. However, encyclopedias geared toward specific research areas are permitted: Encyclopedia of Slavic History, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, and other similar works. Some mass media encyclopedic entries do not include the name of the author. A cardinal rule when researching a paper topic is to avoid any article that does not have an author.
Internet Web Sites and Journals
Student with access to academic data bases should have no problem finding reputable articles. Sites such as JSTOR feature excellently written and researched articles. Students without these internet resources can still find acceptable on-line sources. Internet bibliographic sites, such as Besthistorysites , provide students with scholarly sites, many maintained by universities or organizations dedicated to the topic being researched.
URLs ending with edu or org are usually considered safe. Sites such as Spark Notes or Spartacus UK should never be used. Additionally, many instructors frown on the use of Wikipedia. Writing in the Chronicle of High Education, Brock Read noted that many professors believe that Wikipedia “devalues the notion of expertise” and contains a “dearth of scholarly contributions.” He cites several examples of false Recognizing Primary and Secondary Sources
American Heritage, Smithsonian Magazine, and National Geographic are among many internet sites that allow users to read archived articles for free. Although written for a non-academic audience, such publications may contain well written articles by professionals that are deemed acceptable in a paper. The internet can be a useful source depending upon the research topic. The Colonial Williamsburg Journal has free archives full of articles pertaining to Colonial American History. Archaeology Today makes available hundreds of free articles on ancient world topics. Writing about Islam or the Middle East? Saudi Aramco World has an archive of superbly researched articles (the print editions are free).
Most every text book includes primary source discs or on-line access to primary source documents. Used correctly, primary source documents enhance the research quality of the paper. Publications such as The New York Times, Spectator, and The Nation are excellent sources of original articles whether the writer is looking for a first hand account of the Battle of Gettysburg or the London Blitz. Some publication may charge a small fee to obtain article access.
Finding appropriate paper sources is not difficult if students begin the research process early and avoid frivolous last minute internet searches that may not provide quality and reliability.