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Finding the Right Scholarly Sources for Your Research

We know that dreaded feeling of being assigned a research paper in class. Not only do you have to formulate your thoughts, but you also have to include external research in your paper. This can be a daunting task, as there are multiple potential scholarly sources, and it's your responsibility to determine which of them you should and should not use.

Even so, finding and choosing the right scholarly source doesn't have to be a time-consuming task. In fact, scholarly sources should make writing your research paper easier! First, let's determine what constitutes a scholarly source.

What is a scholarly source?

Scholarly sources refer to pieces of research conducted in any given academic or professional field. These sources aim to ask questions about a specific topic and explore the potential answers. For example, if you are writing a sociology essay on young girls' cultural and societal beauty expectations, your question may be:

What effect – if any- do social media apps have on a young woman's self-image?

To answer this question, you can look to scholarly sources to see what research has been conducted on this topic. These resources may include self-reported surveys conducted on a group of young female students who regularly use social media or statistical analysis about the frequency in which beauty ads appear on an app like Instagram®.

Scholarly sources allow academics to share their findings with other scholars. This leads to more research and development in the field. Some sources are fact-driven and use research data, such as the results from a biology experiment. Other sources, such as humanities papers, are opinion-driven, but they support their opinions with relevant scholarly research and analysis.

The purpose of requiring scholarly sources is to add credibility to your writing. You may think you have a compelling argument about your given topic, but do other academics agree with you? Is your perspective unique, or can you find other sources corroborating your opinions? Including scholarly sources in your writing strengthens your argument because you can provide preexisting, published evidence to support your thesis.

Scholarly sources may include journal articles, survey results, experiment data – including qualitative or quantitative data – research papers, books, and more. Scholarly sources may be primary or secondary sources.

Primary vs. secondary sources

Primary sources are firsthand accounts written or created by someone directly connected to the origin of the information. For example, an autobiography is a primary source because the author and the subject are the same person. In other words, the author experienced everything they wrote. Primary sources must be interpreted, and that's where secondary sources come into play.

Secondary sources typically analyze, synthesize, and interpret primary sources. For example, a biography is a secondary source because the subject and author are different people. The author summarizes and interprets the events of another person's life.

These sources do not include magazines, blog posts, or other sources that mainly seek to entertain or inform without analysis. These publications will likely contain biased opinions and are usually not peer-reviewed. This means they have not been read and edited by other expert academics in the field to ensure content accuracy.

Some sources – such as newspapers – are more difficult to label. For example, if a reporter was present during an event they're reporting on, the newspaper article can be considered a primary source. However, if the newspaper article is a summarization of an event written by someone who did not directly witness the moment they're writing on, then it is a secondary source. You should take special care in determining if a source is primary or secondary.

Determine credibility

university professor looking at her laptop in a library
In addition to teaching, many professors conduct their own research as experts in their field. Photo by Drazen.

Before using any source in your writing, you must ensure the source is credible. You may be surprised to discover that many resources falsely claim to be a hub for scholarly sources. Scams like these are in it for the money, not the spread of factual information.

For example, academic journals are the most popular sources for scholarly articles. However, there are plenty of predatory journals that seek to make a quick profit off of people, making false promises to academics. How can you be sure a source is scholarly? Here are a few things to investigate:

  • Who is the author? The source is most likely scholarly if the author is a professor, researcher, or other academic. These authors aim to inform colleagues in their field about their research. You should also make sure the author's credentials and qualifications are listed. These should include their name, associated institution, and possibly other related works.
  • Is it peer-reviewed? This is the best indicator of a scholarly source. Peer-reviewed journals are considered the most authoritative sources because they have been read and edited by other professionals in the field. In other words, if an article or book is peer-reviewed, it is a scholarly source by default.
  • Does it have citations? Legitimate scholarly sources will be full of citations. From internal footnotes to a comprehensive bibliography, scholarly sources always give credit where credit is due. This prevents plagiarism and creates a system whereby other researchers can find sources to use in their research. Citations play a crucial role in directing research traffic. The more frequently a specific source is cited, the more credible the source is. Specific search tools, such as Connected Papers, can help you find the most relevant and most frequently cited sources related to your topic, simplifying your search process.
  • How long is it? Scholarly sources, particularly scholarly articles, will be relatively long. This is because they have extensive research and evidence that must be included, and there may even be charts, diagrams, and graphs throughout the article.

The best ways to search for sources

Google Scholar homepage
There are plenty of easily accessible online sources to find scholarly sources for your research. Photo by Tada Images.

If you're a student at a college or university, your institution most likely has an online library database of scholarly sources such as journals, articles, and book chapters. If you are hitting a dead end, research librarians can help answer any questions about navigating these online databases. They're there to assist you on how to tackle your research to maximize search results.

Please note that research librarians sometimes specialize in a specific field. If you're writing a history research paper, it's best to meet with the history research librarian. Similarly, if you're writing an anthropology research paper, you should contact a research librarian specializing in social sciences.

If you aren't affiliated with a college or university, fear not. There are online databases that provide free and open access to people looking for peer-reviewed scholarly sources. Here is a list of online databases you can use during your research process:

  • Google Scholar: Google Scholar is a good resource for someone new to finding scholarly sources. This is one of the broader resources, meaning you cannot use keywords or other categories to specify what you want to narrow down your search results. You simply enter your research topic into the search bar and are shown thousands – sometimes millions – of results. There is an option to select a specific publication time range for your search. You're also allowed to sort by relevance or date, so you can prioritize what appears first. If you want to narrow your search as much as possible, you may select "review articles," which will eliminate non-reviewed search results.
  • JSTOR: JSTOR is an online library where you can find academic journals, articles, books, and other primary and secondary sources. This database also has a great advanced search feature that we will discuss in detail a little later in this post.
  • ProQuest Central: ProQuest Central is a platform containing scholarly journals, newspapers, and other sources within one database. It is an excellent resource because it is a multidisciplinary database, meaning there are sources for fields ranging from business to social science to education.
  • Directory of Open Access Journals: The DOAJ provides open access to an organized list of peer-reviewed journals.
  • Gale: Gale is an online resource that works with academic libraries to provide databases to students and professors in their research pursuits. You can find links to e-books, case studies, journals, and periodical databases.

Tailor your search homepage
Most online search sources will have filters, so you can narrow down your search to find the best, most relevant sources for your work. Photo by Tada Images.

So you've found a relevant journal filled with scholarly articles – now what? Depending on what you're researching, you may find a wide range of results. For example, you may have a more obscure topic that only generates 20 search results. On the other hand, you may have a widely researched topic that has over 10,000 search results. How are you supposed to find a source you can use in your research when you have so many choices? You can always tailor your results. Many resources, such as JSTOR, have an advanced search option where you can select specific criteria for sources you want, such as:

  • Keyword input: You may input as many keywords as you wish to see in the source title and body to find particular sources related to your topic.
  • Item type: This tool allows you to limit your results based on what kind of source you want. This may include books, book chapters, or articles.
  • Language: If you're ending up with over 20,000 search results, we can guarantee that some of those won't be in English. You should make sure that you specify which language you want.
  • Publication date: This is an excellent method for narrowing down your search results. If you don't use this feature, you may get results that are out of date. You'll likely want to keep your searches limited to the last decade or two because that's where the most relevant information is found.
  • Peer-reviewed: As mentioned above, peer-reviewed articles are the most authoritative and credible sources. There is almost always an option for you to select "peer-reviewed" in your search results. Whether it is a book or article, a source is sure to be scholarly if it is peer-reviewed.
  • Subject: This helps you refine your search results to fit your criteria. For example, suppose you're researching beauty standards for African American women. In that case, you can check off "African American Studies," ensuring your search results are more tailored to the topic.

Another tip to determine if a source is for you is to read the entire abstract and not rely on titles. Almost all scholarly sources will have a short paragraph, usually less than 150 or 200 words, outlining the purpose and contents of the source. The title may make the source sound like a perfect fit, so you think you've hit the jackpot. However, upon reading the abstract, you may find the source is entirely irrelevant to your needs. Don't skip the abstract – it's there for a reason.

Start writing

Now that you've learned how to find good, credible scholarly sources, it's time to put your knowledge into practice! Begin writing about your chosen topic, keeping what you've read in mind. Hopefully, the research process is not as daunting as it once seemed. There are plenty of resources out there designed to help you, so take full advantage of the knowledge available at your fingertips.

Header photo by DimaBerlin.

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