Chapter 7: Credible Research Sources


Strategies for Gathering Reliable Information

Once you have read the assignment, understood the instructions, and chosen your research topic, and devised a research question, you are finally ready to begin the in-depth research!  As you read this section, you will learn ways to locate sources efficiently, so you have enough time to read the sources, take notes, and think about how to use the information.  One main goal for this course is to teach you to work smarter and more efficiently.

Using Primary and Secondary Sources

Writers classify research resources in two categories: primary sources and secondary sources.

Primary sources are direct, firsthand sources of information or data. For example, if you were writing a paper about freedom of religion, the text of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would be a primary source.

Other primary sources include the following:

  • Research articles
  • Literary texts
  • Historical documents such as diaries or letters
  • Autobiographies or other personal accounts

Secondary sources discuss, interpret, analyze, consolidate, or otherwise rework information from primary sources. They also tell you what research has already been conducted on your topic and what areas/conclusions have been deemed important by that scholarly community. In researching a paper about freedom of religion, you might read articles about legal cases that involved freedom of religion, or editorials expressing commentary on freedom of religion. These would be considered secondary sources because they are one step removed from the primary source of information.

The following are examples of secondary sources:

  • Magazine articles
  • Biographical books
  • Literary and scientific reviews
  • Television documentaries

Your topic and purpose determine whether you must cite both primary and secondary sources in your paper. Ask yourself which sources are most likely to provide the information that will answer your research questions. If you are writing a research paper about reality television shows, you will need to use some reality shows as a primary source, but secondary sources, such as a reviewer’s critique, are also important. If you are writing about the health effects of nicotine, you will probably want to read the published results of scientific studies, but secondary sources, such as magazine articles discussing the outcome of a recent study, may also be helpful.

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Once you have thought about what kinds of sources are most likely to help you answer your research questions, you may begin your search for print and electronic resources. The challenge is to conduct your search efficiently. Writers use strategies to help them find the sources that are most relevant and reliable while steering clear of sources that will not be useful.

Reading Popular and Scholarly Periodicals

When you search for periodicals, be sure to distinguish among different types. Mass market publications, such as newspapers and popular magazines, differ from scholarly publications in their accessibility, audience, and purpose.

Newspapers and magazines are written for a broader audience than scholarly journals. Their content is usually quite accessible and easy to read. Trade magazines that target readers within a particular industry may presume the reader has background knowledge, but these publications are still reader friendly for a broader audience. Their purpose is to inform and, often, to entertain or persuade readers as well.

Scholarly or academic journals are written for a much smaller and more expert audience. The creators of these publications assume that most of their readers are already familiar with the main topic of the journal. The target audience is also highly educated. Informing is the primary purpose of a scholarly journal. While a journal article may advance an agenda or advocate a position, the content will still be presented in an objective style and formal tone (which is why you have been asked to find an academic journal article). Entertaining readers with breezy comments and splashy graphics is not a priority with this type of source.

Because of these differences, scholarly journals are more challenging to read. That does not mean you should avoid them. On the contrary, they can provide in-depth information that is unavailable elsewhere. Because knowledgeable professionals carefully review the content before publication, scholarly journals are far more reliable than much of the information available in popular media. Seek out academic journals along with other resources. Just be prepared to spend a little more time processing the information.

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Using online Databases

Library catalogues can help you locate book length sources, as well as some types of nonprint holdings, such as CDs, DVDs, and audiobooks. But, to locate shorter sources, such as magazine and journal articles, you will need to use an online periodical database. These tools index the articles that appear in newspapers, magazines, and journals. Like catalogues, they provide publication information about an article and often allow users to access a summary or even the full text of the article.

Commonly Used Databases

Resource Format Contents
Academic Search (EBSCOhost) Online General content from magazines, journals, and books
Canadian Newsstand (ProQuest) Online News and current event-related content from magazines and newspapers
Business Source Complete (EBSCOhost) Online Business-related content from magazines and journals
Criminal Justice (ProQuest) Online Content from journals in criminology and law
MEDLINE (EBSCOhost) PubMed (OPEN ACCESS) Online Articles in medicine and health
PsycINFO (EBSCOhost) Online Content from journals in psychology and psychiatry
SocINDEX (EBSCOhost) Online General content from magazines, journals, and books

Finding and Using Electronic Resources

With the expansion of technology and media over the past few decades, a wealth of information is available to you in electronic format. Some types of resources, such as television documentaries, may only be available electronically. Other resources—for instance, many newspapers and magazines—may be available in both print and electronic form. The following are some of the electronic sources you might consult:

  • Online databases
  • CD-ROMs
  • Popular web search engines
  • Websites maintained by businesses, universities, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies
  • Newspapers, magazines, and journals published on the web
  • E-books
  • Audiobooks
  • Industry blogs
  • Radio and television programs and other audio and video recordings
  • Online discussion groups

The techniques you use to locate print resources can also help you find electronic resources efficiently. Libraries usually include CD-ROMs, audiobooks, and audio and video recordings among their holdings. You can locate these materials in the catalogue using a keyword search. The same Boolean operators used to refine database searches can help you filter your results in popular search engines.

Using Internet Search Engines Efficiently

When faced with the challenge of writing a research paper, some students rely on popular search engines as their first source of information. Typing a keyword or phrase into a search engine instantly pulls up links to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of related websites—what could be easier? Unfortunately, despite its apparent convenience, this research strategy has the following drawbacks:

Results do not always appear in order of reliability. The first few hits that appear in search results may include sites with unreliable content, such as online encyclopedias that can be edited by any user. Because websites are created by third parties, the search engine cannot tell you which sites have accurate information.

Results may be too numerous for you to use. The amount of information available on the web is far greater than the amount of information housed within a particular library or database. Realistically, if your web search pulls up thousands of hits, you will not be able to visit every site—and the most useful sites may be buried deep within your search results.

Search engines are not connected to the results of the search. Search engines find websites that people visit often and list the results in order of popularity. The search engine, then, is not connected to any of the results. When you cite a source found through a search engine, you do not need to cite the search engine. Only cite the source.

A general web search can provide a helpful overview of a topic and may pull up genuinely useful resources. To get the most out of a search engine like Google Scholar, however, you will need to use strategies to make your search more efficient.

To find resources efficiently, first identify the major concepts and terms you will use to conduct your search—that is, your keywords. Use multiple keywords and Boolean operators to limit your results.  These will help you find sources using any of the following methods:

  • Using the library’s online catalogue
  • Using periodicals indexes and databases
  • Consulting a reference librarian
PRO TIP: Knowing the right keywords can sometimes make all the difference in conducting a successful search. If you have trouble finding sources on a topic, consult a librarian to see whether you need to modify your search terms.

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Depending on the specific search engine you use, the following options may be available:

  • Limit results to websites that have been updated within a particular time frame
  • Limit results by language or country
  • Limit results to scholarly works available online
  • Limit results by file type
  • Limit results to a particular domain type, such as .edu (school and university sites) or .gov (government sites). This is a quick way to filter out commercial sites, which can often lead to more objective results.
  • Use the “bookmarks” or “favourites” feature of your web browser to save and organize sites that look promising.

Finding Print Resources

Print resources include a vast array of documents and publications. Regardless of your topic, you will consult some print resources as part of your research. (You will use electronic sources as well, but it is not wise to limit yourself to electronic sources only because some potentially useful sources may be available only in print form.)

Yes, folks, physical books do still hold some merit!

Types of Print Resources

Resource Type Description Examples
Reference works Reference works provide a summary of information about a particular topic. Almanacs, encyclopedias, atlases, medical reference books, and scientific abstracts are examples of reference works. In some cases, reference books may not be checked out of a library. Note that reference works are many steps removed from original primary sources and are often brief, so they should be used only as a starting point when you gather information.
  • The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2015
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association
Nonfiction books Nonfiction books provide in-depth coverage of a topic. Trade books, biographies, and how-to guides are usually written for a general audience. Scholarly books and scientific studies are usually written for an audience that has specialized knowledge of a topic.
  • The 30-Day Low-Carb Diet Solution
  • Fundamentals of Nutrition
Periodicals and news sources These sources are published at regular intervals—daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Newspapers, magazines, and academic journals are examples. Some periodicals provide articles on subjects of general interest, while others are more specialized.
  • The Globe and Mail
  • Maclean’s magazine
  • CMAJ, Canadian Medical Association Journal
Government publications Federal, provincial, and local government agencies publish information on a variety of topics. Government publications include reports, legislation, court documents, public records, statistics, studies, guides, programs, and forms.
  • Statistics Canada
  • Juristat
Business and nonprofit publications Businesses and nonprofit organizations produce publications designed to market a product, provide background about the organization, provide information on topics connected to the organization, or promote a cause. These publications include reports, newsletters, advertisements, manuals, brochures, and other print documents.
  • A company’s instruction manual explaining how to use a specific software program
  • A news release published by UNICEF Canada

Some of these resources are also widely available in electronic format. In addition to the resources noted in the table, library holdings may include primary texts such as historical documents, letters, and diaries.

Writing at Work

Businesses, government organizations, and nonprofit organizations produce published materials that range from brief advertisements and brochures to lengthy, detailed reports. In many cases, producing these publications requires research. A corporation’s annual report may include research about economic or industry trends. A charitable organization may use information from research in materials sent to potential donors.

Regardless of the industry you work in, you may be asked to assist in developing materials for publication. Often, incorporating research in these documents can make them more effective in informing or persuading readers.

PRO TIP: As you gather information, strive for a balance of accessible, easy-to-read sources and more specialized, challenging sources. Relying solely on lightweight books and articles written for a general audience will drastically limit the range of useful, substantial information. On the other hand, restricting oneself to dense, scholarly works could make the process of researching extremely time consuming and frustrating.

Evaluating Research Resources

As you gather sources, you will need to examine them with a critical eye. Smart researchers continually ask themselves two questions: “Is this source relevant to my purpose?” and “Is this source reliable?” The first question will help you avoid wasting valuable time reading sources that stray too far from your specific topic and research questions. The second question will help you find accurate, trustworthy sources.

Determining Whether a Source Is Relevant

At this point in your research process, you may have identified dozens of potential sources. It is easy for writers to get so caught up in checking out books and printing out articles that they forget to ask themselves how they will use these resources in their research. Now is a good time to get a little ruthless. Reading and taking notes takes time and energy, so you will want to focus on the most relevant sources.

To weed through your stack of books and articles, skim their contents. Read quickly with your research questions and subtopics in mind. If a book or article is not especially relevant, put it aside. You can always come back to it later if you need to.

Tips for Skimming Books and Articles

Tips for Skimming Books

Tips for Skimming Articles

  • Read the dust jacket and table of contents for a broad overview of the topics covered.
  • Use the index to locate more specific topics and see how thoroughly they are covered.
  • Flip through the book and look for subtitles or key terms that correspond to your research.
  • Skim the introduction and conclusion for summary material.
  • Skim through subheadings and text features such as sidebars.
  • Look for keywords related to your topic.
  • Journal articles often begin with an abstract or summary of the contents.
  • Read it to determine the article’s relevance to your research.

Some sources are better than others: let’s talk wikipedia!

You probably know by now that if you cite Wikipedia as an authoritative source, your professors will be unimpressed. Why is it that even the most informative Wikipedia articles are still often considered illegitimate?  Because the information is subject to change by anyone (though that has changed recently as Wikipedia works on its quality control).

However, Wikipedia is a great place to begin your research for two reasons:

  1. It provides a great overview of your topic, including keywords
  2. The reference page of the Wikipedia entry is a great place to begin your research

So, what are good sources to use? The table below summarizes types of secondary sources in four tiers. All sources have their legitimate uses, but the top-tier ones are preferable for citation in academic research papers as secondary sources.





How to find them


Peer-reviewed academic publications

Rigorous research and analysis

Provide strong evidence for claims and references to other high-quality sources

Google Scholar, library catalogs, and academic article databases


Reports, articles, and books from credible non-academic sources

Well researched and even-handed descriptions of an event or state of the world

Initial research on events or trends not yet analyzed in the academic literature; may reference important Tier 1 sources

Websites of relevant agencies, Google searches using (site: *.gov or site: *.org), academic article databases


Short pieces from newspapers or credible websites

Simple reporting of events, research findings, or policy changes

Often point to useful Tier 2 or Tier 1 sources, may provide a factoid or two not found anywhere else

Strategic Google searches or article databases including newspapers and magazines


Agenda-driven or uncertain pieces

Mostly opinion, varying in thoughtfulness and credibility

May represent a particular position within a debate; more often provide keywords and clues about higher quality sources

Non-specific Google searches

Tier 1: Peer-reviewed academic publications

These are sources from the mainstream academic literature: books and scholarly articles. Academic books generally fall into three categories: (1) textbooks written with students in mind, (2) monographs which give an extended report on a large research project, and (3) edited volumes in which each chapter is authored by different people. Scholarly articles appear in academic journals, which are published multiple times a year in order to share the latest research findings with scholars in the field. They’re usually sponsored by some academic society. To get published, these articles and books had to earn favorable anonymous evaluations by qualified scholars in a process called Peer Review. Who are the experts writing, reviewing, and editing these scholarly publications? Your professors. This process is described in more detail below. Learning how to read and use these sources is a fundamental part of being a college student.

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Tier 2: Reports, articles and books from credible non-academic sources

Some events and trends are too recent to appear in Tier 1 sources. Also, Tier 1 sources tend to be highly specific, and sometimes you need a more general perspective on a topic. Thus, Tier 2 sources can provide quality information that is more accessible to non-academics. There are three main categories. First, official reports from government agencies or major international institutions like the World Bank or the United Nations; these institutions generally have research departments staffed with qualified experts who seek to provide rigorous, even-handed information to decision-makers. Second, feature articles from major newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, London Times, or The Economist are based on original reporting by experienced journalists (not press releases) and are typically 1500+ words in length. Third, there are some great books from non-academic presses that cite their sources; they’re often written by journalists. All three of these sources are generally well researched descriptions of an event or state of the world, undertaken by credentialed experts who generally seek to be even-handed. It is still up to you to judge their credibility. Your instructors and campus librarians can advise you on which sources in this category have the most credibility.

Tier 3. Short pieces from periodicals or credible websites

A step below the well-developed reports and feature articles that make up Tier 2 are the short tidbits that one finds in newspapers and magazines or credible websites. How short is a short news article? Usually, they’re just a couple paragraphs or less, and they’re often reporting on just one thing: an event, an interesting research finding, or a policy change. They don’t take extensive research and analysis to write, and many just summarize a press release written and distributed by an organization or business. They may describe things like corporate mergers, newly discovered diet-health links, or important school-funding legislation. You may want to cite Tier 3 sources in your paper if they provide an important factoid or two that isn’t provided by a higher-tier piece, but if the Tier 3 article describes a particular study or academic expert, your best bet is to find the journal article or book it is reporting on and use that Tier 1 source instead. If the article mentions which journal the study was published in, you can go right to that journal through your library website. Sometimes you can find the original journal article by putting the scholar’s name and some keywords into Google Scholar.

What counts as a credible website in this tier? You may need some guidance from instructors or librarians, but you can learn a lot by examining the person or organization providing the information (look for an “About” link). For example, if the organization is clearly agenda-driven or not up-front about its aims and/or funding sources, then it definitely isn’t something you want to cite as a neutral authority. Also look for signs of expertise. A tidbit about a medical research finding written by someone with a science background carries more weight than the same topic written by a policy analyst. These sources are sometimes uncertain, which is all the more reason to follow the trail to a Tier 1 or Tier 2 source whenever possible.

Tier 4. Agenda-driven or pieces from unknown sources

This tier is essentially everything else, including Wikipedia.[1] These types of sources—especially Wikipedia—can be hugely helpful in identifying interesting topics, positions within a debate, keywords to search on, and, sometimes, higher-tier sources on the topic. They often play a critically important role in the early part of the research process, but they generally aren’t (and shouldn’t be) cited in the final paper. Throwing some keywords into Google and seeing what you get is a fine way to get started, but don’t stop there. Start a list of the people, organizations, sources, and keywords that seem most relevant to your topic. For example, suppose you’ve been assigned a research paper about the impact of linen production and trade on the ancient world. A quick Google search reveals that (1) linen comes from the flax plant, (2) the scientific name for flax is Linum usitatissimum, (3) Egypt dominated linen production at the height of its empire, and (4) Alex J. Warden published a book about ancient linen trade in 1867. Similarly, you found some useful search terms to try instead of “ancient world” (antiquity, Egyptian empire, ancient Egypt, ancient Mediterranean) and some generalizations for linen (fabric, textiles, or weaving). Now you’ve got a lot to work with as you tap into the library catalog and academic article databases.

For examples of different styles of writing, see “Module 4: Supplementary Readings” in this textbook 

Determining Whether a Source Is Reliable

All information sources are not created equal. Sources can vary greatly in terms of how carefully they are researched, written, edited, and reviewed for accuracy. Common sense will help you identify obviously questionable sources, such as tabloids that feature tales of alien abductions, or personal websites with glaring typos. Sometimes, however, a source’s reliability—or lack of it—is not so obvious.

To evaluate your research sources, you will use critical thinking skills consciously and deliberately. You will consider criteria such as the type of source, its intended purpose and audience, the author’s qualifications, the publication’s reputation, any indications of bias or hidden agendas, how current the source is, and the overall quality of the writing, thinking, and design.

Evaluating Types of Sources

The different types of sources you will consult are written for distinct purposes and with different audiences in mind. This accounts for other differences, such as the following:

  • How thoroughly the writers cover a given topic
  • How carefully the writers research and document facts
  • How editors review the work
  • What biases or agendas affect the content.

A journal article written for an academic audience for the purpose of expanding scholarship in a given field will take an approach quite different from a magazine feature written to inform a general audience. Textbooks, hard news articles, and websites approach a subject from different angles as well. To some extent, the type of source provides clues about its overall depth and reliability. The following table ranks popular sources of information:

High-Quality Sources
These sources provide the most in-depth information. They are researched and written by subject matter experts and are carefully reviewed.
  • Scholarly books and articles in scholarly journals
  • Trade books and magazines geared toward an educated general audience, such as Police Chief magazine, Canadian Paramedicine, or Harvard Business Review
  • Government documents, such as books, reports, and web pages
  • Documents posted online by reputable organizations, such as universities and research institutes
  • Textbooks and reference books, which are usually reliable but may not cover a topic in great depth
Varied-Quality Sources
These sources are often useful. However, they do not cover subjects in as much depth as high-quality sources, and they are not always rigorously researched and reviewed. Some, such as popular magazine articles or company brochures, may be written to market a product or a cause. **Use these sources with caution.**
  • News stories and feature articles (print or online) from reputable newspapers, magazines, or organizations, such as The Economist or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
  • Popular magazine articles, which may or may not be carefully researched and fact checked
  • Documents published by businesses and nonprofit organizations
Questionable Sources
These sources are often written primarily to attract a large readership or present the author’s opinions and are not subject to careful review. **Avoid using these sources!**
  • Loosely regulated or unregulated media content, such as Internet discussion boards, blogs, free online encyclopedias, talk radio shows, television news shows with obvious political biases, personal websites, and chat rooms

Evaluating Credibility and Reputability

Even when you are using a type of source that is generally reliable, you will still need to evaluate the author’s credibility and the publication itself on an individual basis. To examine the author’s credibility—that is, how much you can believe of what the author has to say—examine his or her credentials. What career experience or academic study shows that the author has the expertise to write about this topic?

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Keep in mind that expertise in one field is no guarantee of expertise in another, unrelated area. For instance, an author may have an advanced degree in physiology, but this credential is not a valid qualification for writing about psychology. Check credentials carefully.

Just as important as the author’s credibility is the publication’s overall reputability. Reputability refers to a source’s standing and reputation as a respectable, reliable source of information. An established and well-known newspaper, such as the Globe and Mail or the New York Times, is more reputable than a college newspaper put out by comparatively inexperienced students. A website that is maintained by a well-known, respected organization and is regularly updated is more reputable than one created by an unknown author or group.

If you are using articles from scholarly journals, you can check databases that keep count of how many times each article has been cited in other articles. This can give you a rough indication of the article’s quality or, at the very least, of its influence and reputation among other scholars.

Using Current Sources

Depending on the topic, sources may become outdated relatively soon after publication, or they may remain useful for years. The age of a source you can use will depend on your research topic and approach.  For example, were you to be investigating current medical developments for Diabetes, be sure to seek out sources that are current, or up to date.   If you were examining the history of Diabetes medical developments, you would be looking for sources as far back as you could go.

Timeliness is a complicated issue for researchers, particularly with the internet.  For instance, online social networking sites have evolved rapidly over the past few years. An article published in 2002 about this topic will not provide current information. On the other hand, a research paper on elementary education practices might refer to studies published decades ago by influential child psychologists.

When using websites for research, check to see when the site was last updated. Many sites publish this information on the homepage, and some, such as news sites, are updated daily or weekly. Many nonfunctioning links are a sign that a website is not regularly updated. Do not be afraid to ask your instructor for suggestions if you find that many of your most relevant sources are not especially reliable—or that the most reliable sources are not relevant.

Evaluating Overall Quality by Asking Questions

When you evaluate a source, you will consider the criteria previously discussed as well as your overall impressions of its quality. Read carefully, and notice how well the author presents and supports his or her statements. Stay actively engaged—do not simply accept an author’s words as truth.

Source Evaluation Questions:

  • Is the type of source appropriate for my purpose? Is it a high-quality source or one that needs to be looked at more critically?
  • Can I establish that the author is credible and the publication is reputable?
  • Does the author support ideas with specific facts and details that are carefully documented? Is the source of the author’s information clear? (When you use secondary sources, look for sources that are not too removed from primary research.)
  • Does the source include any factual errors or instances of faulty logic?
  • Does the author leave out any information that I would expect to see in a discussion of this topic?
  • Do the author’s conclusions logically follow from the evidence that is presented? Can I see how the author got from one point to another?
  • Is the writing clear and organized, and is it free from errors, clichés, and empty buzzwords? Is the tone objective, balanced, and reasonable? (Be on the lookout for extreme, emotionally charged language.)
  • Are there any obvious biases or agendas? Based on what I know about the author, are there likely to be any hidden agendas?
  • Are graphics informative, useful, and easy to understand? Are websites organized, easy to navigate, and free of clutter like flashing ads and unnecessary sound effects?
  • Is the source contradicted by information found in other sources? (If so, it is possible that your sources are presenting similar information but taking different perspectives, which requires you to think carefully about which sources you find more convincing and why. Be suspicious, however, of any source that presents facts that you cannot confirm elsewhere.)

Writing at Work

The critical thinking skills you use to evaluate research sources as a student are equally valuable when you conduct research on the job. If you follow certain periodicals or websites, you have probably identified publications that consistently provide reliable information. Reading blogs and online discussion groups is a great way to identify new trends and hot topics in a particular field, but these sources should not be used for substantial research.

Self-Practice Exercise

Use a search engine to conduct a web search on your topic. Refer to the tips provided earlier to help you streamline your search. Evaluate your search results critically based on the criteria you have learned. Identify and bookmark one or more websites that are reliable, reputable, and likely to be useful in your research.

Managing Sources

As you determine which sources you will rely on most, it is important to establish a system for keeping track of your sources and taking notes. There are several ways to go about it, and no one system is necessarily superior. What matters is that you keep materials in order; record bibliographical information you will need later; and take detailed, organized notes.

Bibliographic information is all the referencing information you need from all sources you consider using for your paper—think of this as your working references page. Any time you look at a source, you should make note of all the referencing information—you may later decide to change direction in your paper or simply choose not to use that source as you develop your paper, but if you do decide to use that source, you will have all the details you need when compiling your references page.

Keeping Track of Your Sources

Think ahead to a moment a few weeks from now when you will have written your final research paper and are almost ready to submit it for a grade. There is just one task left: writing your list of sources.

As you begin typing your list, you realize you need to include the publication information for a book you cited frequently. Unfortunately, you already returned it to the library several days ago. You do not remember the URLs for some of the websites you used or the dates you accessed them—information that also must be included in your reference page. With a sinking feeling, you realize that finding this information and preparing your references will require hours of work.

This stressful scenario can be avoided. Taking time to organize source information now will ensure that you are not scrambling to find it at the last minute. Throughout your research, record bibliographical information for each source as soon as you begin using it. You may use pen-and-paper methods, such as a notebook or note cards, or maintain an electronic list. (If you prefer the latter option, many office software packages include separate programs for recording bibliographic information, or you can try popular programs like Mendeley or Zotero)

Use these details to develop a working bibliography—a preliminary list of sources that you will later use to develop the references section of your paper. You may wish to record information using the formatting system of the American Psychological Association (APA), which will save a step later on.

Details for Commonly Used Source Types

Source Type Necessary Information
Book Author(s), title and subtitle, publisher, city of publication, year of publication
Essay or article published in a book Include all the information you would for any other book. Additionally, record the essay’s or article’s title, author(s), the pages on which it appears, and the name of the book’s editor(s).
Periodical Author(s), article title, publication title, date of publication, volume and issue number, and page numbers
Online source Author(s) (if available), article or document title, organization that sponsors the site, database name (if applicable), date of publication, date you accessed the site, and URL
Interview Name of person interviewed, method of communication, date of interview

Origins and anatomy of a journal article

Most of the Tier 1 sources available are academic articles, also called scholarly articles, scholarly papers, journal articles, academic papers, or peer-reviewed articles. They all mean the same thing: a paper published in an academic periodical (think: magazine for nerds) after being scrutinized anonymously and judged to be sound by other experts in the subfield.  Academic papers are essentially reports that scholars write to their peers—present and future—about what they’ve done in their research, what they’ve found, and why they think it’s important. The origin of academic articles explains both their basic structure and the high esteem they have in the eyes of your professors.

Thus, in a lot of fields they often have a structure reminiscent of the lab reports you may have written for science classes:

  1. Abstract: A one-paragraph summary of the article: its purpose, methods, findings, and significance.
  2. Introduction: An overview of the key question or problem that the paper addresses, why it is important, and the key conclusion(s) (i.e., thesis or theses) of the paper.
  3. Literature review: A synthesis of all the relevant prior research (the so-called “academic literature” on the subject) that explains why the paper makes an original and important contribution to the body of knowledge.
  4. Data and methods: An explanation of what data or information the author(s) used and what they did with it.
  5. Results: A full explanation of the key findings of the study.
  6. Conclusion/discussion: Puts the key findings or insights from the paper into their broader context; explains why they matter.

But beware! Not all papers are so “sciencey.” For example, a historical or literary analysis doesn’t necessarily have a “data and methods” section; however, they do explain and justify the research question, describe how the authors’ own points relate to those made in other relevant articles and books, develop the key insights yielded by the analysis, and conclude by explaining their significance. Some academic papers are review articles, in which the “data” are published papers and the “findings” are key insights, enduring lines of debate, and/or remaining unanswered questions.

Credible scholarly journals use a peer-review process to decide which articles merit publication.  However, academia is seeing a shift in how research is being disseminated.  Self-publishing on platforms such as or even LinkedIn is becoming increasingly more popular, but comes with a risk: the articles are not likely to have been peer-reviewed.  There are also open-access journals that do not charge fees to institutions or researchers to read articles.

reading academic journal articles

Reading an academic journal article is different from most reading strategies that you may use in other contexts.  Rarely do researchers read an academic journal in a linear way, from start to finish.  Check out the following video for tips on how to read academic journal articles efficiently and effectively:

Video source:

Research papers, amongst others, are the most common papers a college student will ever write, and as difficult as it may sound, it is not impossible to complete. Research papers are my favorite kind of papers because of sourcing, paraphrasing, and quoting. Naturally as you would in other papers, your own paper should come from yourself, but when you are proving a point about a specific area of your topic, it is always ok to have a credible source explain further. In college, sources are very important for most, if not all papers you will have, and citing those sources is important as well. After you are able to familiarize yourself with citations, it will come natural like it has for many students.

Consulting a Reference Librarian

Sifting through library stacks and database search results to find the information you need can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. If you are not sure how you should begin your search, or if it is yielding too many or too few results, you are not alone. Many students find this process challenging, although it does get easier with experience. One way to learn better search strategies is to consult a reference librarian.

Reference librarians are intimately familiar with the systems libraries use to organize and classify information. They can help you locate a particular book in the library stacks, steer you toward useful reference works, and provide tips on how to use databases and other electronic research tools. Take the time to see what resources you can find on your own, but if you encounter difficulties, ask for help.

You can find the Sheridan College Library information here.

Self-Practice Exercise

Visit your library’s website or consult with a reference librarian to determine what periodicals indexes or databases would be useful for your research. Depending on your topic, you may rely on a general news index, a specialized index for a particular subject area, or both. Search the catalogue for your topic and related keywords. Print out or bookmark your search results.

Identify at least one to two relevant periodicals, indexes, or databases.

Conduct a keyword search to find potentially relevant articles on your topic.

Save your search results. If the index you are using provides article summaries, read these to determine how useful the articles are likely to be.

Identify at least three to five articles to review more closely. If the full article is available online, set aside time to read it. If not, plan to visit our library within the next few days to locate the articles you need.

PRO TIP: One way to refine your keyword search is to use Boolean operators. These allow you to combine keywords, find variations on a word, and otherwise expand or limit your results. Here are some of the ways you can use Boolean operators:

  • Combine keywords with and or + to limit results to citations that include both keywords—for example, diet + nutrition.
  • Combine keywords with or to find synonyms. For example, prison or jail. The phrase “Or is more” may help you remember that using this will show you more results.
  • Combine keywords with not or – to search for the first word without the second. This can help you eliminate irrelevant results based on words that are similar to your search term. For example, searching for stress fractures not geological locates materials on fractures of bones but excludes materials on fractures of stones. Use this one cautiously because it may exclude useful sources.
  • Enclose a phrase in quotation marks to search for an exact phrase, such as “morbid obesity,” “use of force,” or “law enforcement.”
  • Use parentheses to direct the order of operations in a search string. For example, since Type II diabetes is also known as adult onset diabetes, you could search (Type II or adult onset or Type 2) and diabetes to limit your search results to articles on this form of the disease.
  • Use a wildcard symbol such as *, #, ?, or $ after a word to search for variations on a term. For instance, you might type gang* to search for information on gang, gangs, and gangland. The specific symbol used varies with different databases.

Sheridan College

Discover Sheridan’s Library Services

Sheridan’s Library collects academic material related to all programs and courses offered at Sheridan. Along with the traditional library materials in print (books, journals, etc), they increasingly collect online material so that you can easily access our content at any time from anywhere!

For a more comprehensive overview of the Sheridan Library, check out their First Year Quick Start Guide.

Where do I start my Search?

Use Summon to find content from the many different databases and collections that we subscribe to, as well as items on library shelves. A great place to start your search!

Once you become familiar with library resources, you’ll quickly get to know which databases are best for your specific information need. We list all of our databases and sites through the Databases A-Z list.

View library-created Research Guides to find all types of resources specific to your research topics.

image Databases & Streaming Media

We have over 200 databases on a wide range of subjects and disciplines. Use the A-Z Database List to access databases and streaming media sites, which includes content from journal articles, newspapers, images, videos, tutorials, and more.

image Ebooks

We currently have more ebooks than books on the shelves! We get ebooks from more than one company. Some can be downloaded, but most are available without downloading. All you need is your Sheridan Credentials to access them! Find ebooks through Summon.

image Textbooks & Course Reserves

Textbooks are available for 3hr loan periods at each campus library. Our textbooks are intended to be used for quick reference only. We recommend that students purchase their own copies. Search for your textbook titles in Summon.

Course reserves are typically non-textbook items that a professor has recommended for reading. Loan periods are generally 2hr loans, but may vary. Course reserves are kept behind the service desk at each campus library. Ask staff at the library service desk.

image English Language Learning (ELL) Resources

We have many resources available for all levels of ESL students to improve reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. See our English Language Learning Guide for more details.

image Games & Equipment

You can now borrow board games, video games and PlayStation game consoles from the library! Board games are available at Davis campus library. Video games and PlayStation consoles are available at Trafalgar campus library. Visit us in person to check them out, and see the Borrowing Policy below for more details.

image Study Spaces

All Sheridan campus libraries and learning commons provide a range of environments for different needs.

  • Quiet study areas
  • Group study areas where you can collaborate and chat
  • Private group study rooms

Book a Group Study Room online.

image Tutoring Services

At the Tutoring Centre, Learning Assistants (LAs) offer tutoring in specific subject areas (listed below) at no additional cost to you as a Sheridan student.  As senior co-op students recruited from Sheridan, University of Waterloo, Ryerson, and University of Guelph, the LAs in the Tutoring Centre are knowledgeable and well qualified to support you in your studies.

How it Works:

Book up to 2 hours per week, per subject.


  • Architecture – Covers the use of architecture-related software (e.g., AutoCAD, Sketchup), as well as technical math, drafting, and other related topics. Plus, your LA can provide explanations of OBC standards and help you better understand course material.
  • Chemistry – Covers fundamental issues related to Chemistry, Organic and Biochemistry from a health perspective (Pharmacy, Nursing, Nutrition and Medicine).
  • Citation & References – Covers how to build and correct your citations and references for your writing assignments (APA, MLA and other styles). Bring your references, sources, and citation questions! By appointment only.
  • Computer Programming – Covers object-oriented programming (Java 1 and Java 2) and other computer programming-related questions.
  • English/Writing – Covers writing practice, presentation skills, basic computing, study and test-taking skills, citing sources, and pronunciation. In addition, tutors can review a portion of your assignment for structure and grammar and offer constructive feedback on content and style.
    NOTE: Your tutor cannot proofread an entire assignment for you, but they can help you improve your proof-reading skills.
  • Math & Business Math– Covers general Math, most Business Math topics (e.g., Accounting, Finance, Statistics, etc.), as well as many technical Math and related topics. Your LA can provide explanations of math concepts, and patiently help you problem solve your way to finding solutions and understanding your subject better.


Content adapted from the Sheridan College Library.

  1. Wikipedia is a conundrum. There are a lot of excellent articles on there, and I, like many other professors, embrace the open-access values that embody things like Wikipedia and this very textbook. It’s not that Wikipedia is crap; it’s just that there are much more solid alternatives.


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