Once you have your research question, you’ll need information sources to answer it. In today’s complex information landscape, just about anything that contains information can be considered a source.
Here are a few examples:
- books and encyclopedias
- websites, web pages, and blogs
- magazine, journal, and newspaper articles
- research reports and conference papers
- interviews and surveys
- photographs, paintings, cartoons, and other art works
- TV and radio programs, podcasts, movies, and videos
- illuminated manuscripts and artifacts
- bones, minerals, and fossils
- pamphlets and government documents
With so many sources available, the question usually is not whether sources exist for your project but which ones will best meet your information needs. Being able to categorize a source helps you understand the kind of information it contains, which is a big clue to (1) whether it might meet one or more of your information needs and (2) where to look for it and similar sources.
- Why was the source created?
- How will you use the source?
- Who was the original audience of the source?
- What format is the source in?
As you may already be able to tell, sources can be in more than one category at the same time because the categories are not mutually exclusive.
The Purpose of the Source
When you encounter a source, you should ask yourself, “Why does this source exist?” Thinking about the reason an author produced a source can be helpful to you because that reason was what dictated the kind of information included. Depending on that purpose, the author may have chosen to include factual and/or analytical information — or, instead, information that was meant to be entertaining. The author’s reason for producing the source also determined whether more perspectives were included or just the author’s own.
Authors typically want to achieve one or more of the following:
- Inform and educate
- Sell services or products
Sometimes authors have a combination of purposes, as when marketers decide they can sell more smart phones with an informative sales video that also entertains us.
Why Intent Matters
Authors’ intent matters because their goal will impact what information they include and how they present that information. For instance, when you’re looking for sources that will help you find the best answer to your research question or evidence for your answer that you will share with your audience, you will want the author’s main purpose to have been to inform or educate their audience. That’s because, with that intent, authors are likely to have used the following:
- Facts where possible
- Multiple perspectives instead of just their own
- Little subjective information
- Unbiased, objective language that cites other sources of information
Those characteristics will lend credibility to the argument you are making in your project. Both you and your audience will simply find it easier to believe—will have more confidence in the argument being made—when you include those types of sources.
Sources whose authors intend only to persuade others won’t meet your information need for an answer to your research question or evidence with which to convince your audience. That’s because they don’t always confine themselves to facts. Instead, they often tell us their opinions without backing them up with evidence.
It’s especially important to verify the purpose in the case of online sources. Let’s say that you find a social media infographic about the health benefits of elderberry syrup. An individual user or an organization took the time to create the post. Why did they do that work? Are they trying to sell you elderberry syrup or are they from a government health organization trying to combat misinformation about health supplements? The difference will tell you whether you can trust the source.
How Will You Use the Source?
Another way to categorize information is by the type of information it offers and, implicitly, the role it will play in your argument.
Primary research is a research approach that involves gathering data directly while secondary research is a research approach that involves relying on already existing data when carrying out a systematic investigation
Primary Sources present data collected by their authors (who performed primary research). Some examples are:
- Survey data
- A novel
- Breaking news
- An advertisement
- An eyewitness account
- A painting
- An interview
When you work with primary sources, you are expected to provide the interpretation/ analysis of the data provided in the source.
Secondary Sources interpret/ analyze information from primary sources. Use secondary sources when you’re interested in the analysis of others. Here are some examples:
- A book about marketing.
- A scholarly journal article that uses data from several primary sources to present a complex argument about a certain economic trend
- An article that critiques a new piece of software.
- An article/ blog post that summarizes and synthesizes several eyewitness accounts for a new understanding of an event.
- An informational podcast on a topic of public interest
- A magazine article that reviews a film
Tertiary Sources consist of indexes or other types of texts that condense, summarize, organize, compile, or digest information:
- Guide books
- Survey articles
- User guides
The difference between primary, secondary and tertiary sources can be a little confusing. Think of a primary source as raw materials that you will use to build an argument. You’re the one doing the analysis. For example, let’s say that your company wants to know how to increase the open rates of its email marketing campaign. The data of all of the email open rates from the past year are a primary source. You’ll use this data to look for trends about which emails are most and least popular. If you read a blog post by an expert in email marketing, however, you’re examining secondary research. You’ve chosen the blog posts because you want someone else’s expert opinion. A tertiary source is a source that you use to find other sources. For example, you might examine a survey article to identify several useful and reliable sources.
What type of research will you most likely produce/ perform at work? If you conduct interviews, surveys, etc., you’d be doing primary research. Most often, however, you’ll probably have to write shorter or longer analytical/ recommendation reports, which can be best described as secondary research (even is you use primary research you yourself have previously performed in order to be able to write them).
Who Is the Intended Audience?
We can also categorize information by the expertise of its intended audience. Considering the intended audience—how much expertise one has to have to understand the information—can indicate whether the source has sufficient credibility and thoroughness to meet your needs. When you are writing papers for a university course, academic articles (peer-reviewed) are usually the best source. In the workplace, however, you may be researching something that doesn’t have many peer-reviewed articles about it yet or you may only need a basic understanding of the topic. The reports and other assignments you prepare for courses in your graduate certificate here at Fanshawe will typically require you to use a combination of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed sources, depending on the context/ scenario.
There are varying degrees of expertise:
Popular – Popular newspaper and magazine articles (such as The National Post, Maclean’s Magazine, and Rolling Stone) are meant for a large general audience, generally affordable, easy to purchase or available free of charge. They are written by staff writers or reporters for the general public.
Professional – Professional magazine articles (such as Plastic Surgical Nursing and Music Teacher) are meant for people in a particular profession, often accessible through a professional organization. Staff writers or other professionals in the targeted field write these articles at a level and with the language to be understood by everyone in the profession. Here are some general characteristics of these articles:
- About trends and news from the targeted field, book reviews, and case studies.
- Often less than 10 pages, some of which may contain footnotes and references.
- Usually published by professional associations and commercial publishers
- Published after approval from an editor
Scholarly – Scholarly journal articles (such as Plant Science and Education and Child Psychology) are meant for scholars, students, or the general public who want a deep understanding of a problem or issue. Researchers and scholars write these articles to present new knowledge and further understanding of their field of study. Main characteristics of such sources:
- This is where research project findings, data and analytics, and case studies usually appear first.
- Often long (usually over 10 pages) and always include footnotes and references.
- Usually published by universities, professional associations, and commercial publishers.
- Published after approval by peer review or from the journal’s editor.
The most respected scholarly journals are peer-reviewed, which means that other experts in their field check out each article before it can be published. It’s their responsibility to help guarantee that new material is presented in the context of what is already known, that the methods the researcher used are the right ones, and that the articles contribute to the field.
Peer-reviewed articles are more likely to be credible. Peer-reviewed journal articles are the official scholarly record, which means that if there is an important development in research, it will appear in a journal article eventually.