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Research Process

Determining Sources Needed

When starting research for an assignment, your instructor usually says you need a certain number of sources on your topic, will tell you a page length, and will tell you what types of sources you will need to use. These sources might include books, ebooks, periodical articles, media, and websites. Note: a periodical is something that is published periodically such as a newspaper, a magazine, or a scholarly journal.

When starting research on your topic, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How much information do I need?

  • What kind of information do I need? (background information, statistics, a definition, research studies, opinions ...)

  • How current does the information need to be? Or do you need historical information? (Bear in mind that currency is often more critical in some areas, such as medicine or computer science, than it is in other areas such as poetry or philosophy.)

  • Do you need scholarly information or will non-scholarly information suffice?

  • Do you need primary sources or secondary sources or both?

  • Do you need to use a variety of information formats? (e.g., books, articles, Web sites)

You will be able to answer these questions based on instructions given to you by your instructor and based on your topic.

When scholars or researchers want to publish their research and findings as an article in a journal, they submit their work to what is called a peer-review process. Their article is sent to other scholars in the same field who analyze it and make sure it is of high quality, relevant, valid, and not just one person's opinion. They then send it back for revisions or approve it for publication.  

Articles in magazines like Time, People, Newsweek, or Psychology Today don't go through a peer review process so you cannot count on them being scholarly. Newspapers are also considered popular sources.

Note: sometimes scholarly articles may be referred to as peer-reviewed articles.

Some reasons why you might use a popular or a scholarly source in research:

  • Newspapers - good for the most up-to-date information on current events and opinion pieces
  • Magazine - good for information on popular culture and current events
  • Scholarly Journals - good for scholarly research on a topic

This table goes over the difference between a scholarly journal article and a popular magazine article:

 

Popular

Scholarly

Purpose

Articles are written to inform, entertain or persuade

Academic or scientific research articles and information

Content

Covers broad subjects and topics of general interest

Scholarly articles which usually focus on original research in a specific subject field or discipline

Intended Audience

Appeal to broad, general readership

Specialized readership; specialists; scholars and professionals in subject field

Authors

Magazine staff or freelance writers

Experts, scholars, professionals in subject field

Layout & Style

 

Usually shorter articles written on glossy pages with advertising

Longer articles, often including tables, graphs, charts

Text

Non-technical language

Technical, specialized terminology

References

Generally not cited

Documented research with footnotes and bibliographies

Review Policy

Reviewed by editor

Reviewed by a panel of peers; they are often called peer-reviewed or refereed articles

Publisher

Published commercially

Published by an association, academic institution, or professional organization

Examples

Time

Newsweek

Psychology Today

Child Development

American Journal of Nursing

Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology

popular and scholarly periodicals

The main distinction between primary and secondary sources is how far removed they are from the event they are describing.

Primary sources are first-hand accounts written at the time of an event or maybe shortly afterwards. They are the first telling of something that has happened, and are tellings by those who witnessed or experienced the actual event. Primary sources can be works that are unpublished such as letters, memoirs, diaries, art, photographs, maps, video, audio recordings, speeches, interviews, etc. They can also be works that are published such as newspapers, magazines, research reports, or published interviews and stories. There usually are not a lot of copies of primary sources.

Secondary sources are published after primary sources and their purpose is to interpret or talk about the events that were described in primary sources. They are second-hand accounts of an event and are a further step removed from an event than primary sources. Primary sources can include journal articles, newspapers, magazines, books, textbooks, and documentaries. There are usually a lot of copies of secondary sources available.

Types of Information Sources

When scholars or researchers want to publish their research and findings in a journal, they submit their work to what is called a peer-review process. Their article is sent to other scholars in the same field who analyze it and make sure it is of high quality, relevant, valid, and not just one person's opinion. They then send it back for revisions or approve it for publication. Journal articles may also be called as scholarly articles, peer-reviewed articles, or academic articles.

Why Use a Journal

Characteristics of a Journal

  • Provides scholarly information based on research
  • Information focuses on a narrow and specific area of a topic to provide new research and analysis
  • Information is reviewed by experts to help ensure accuracy
  • Written by experts, scholars, professionals in subject field
  • Adds to a growing understanding of a topic by contributing new ideas
  • Academic or scientific research articles and information
  • Written for scholars and professionals in subject field
  • Longer articles, often including tables, graphs, charts
  • Technical, specialized terminology
  • Documented research with footnotes and bibliographies
  • Reviewed by a panel of peers
  • Published by an association, academic institution, or professional organization

Examples

  • Child Development
  • American Journal of Nursing
  • Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology

Magazines publish information about a topic about a week after an event occurs and in most cases do not provide in-depth research. The focus of magazines are usually on general topics and topics of interest to specific groups such as music, sports, exercise, fashion, or home decorating fans. They are generally published weekly or monthly, but could be published semi-monthly or several times a year. 

Why Use a Magazine

Characteristics of a Magazine

  • Provides recent information on a topic
  • Provides information on popular culture
  • Written for a general audience
  • Shorter articles
  • Conversational language
  • Reviewed by an editor
  • Written by staff writers or freelance journalists
  • Published by commercial organizations
  • Typically do not have a list of citations
  • Appearing is eye-catching with a lot of images and advertisements

Examples

  • Home and Garden
  • Psychology Today
  • Rolling Stone
  • New Yorker
  • Elle

Newspapers report on a topic generally the day after an event occurs. They are generally published daily, but can be published weekly or bi-weekly. They can also focus nationally or locally, including to a particular state or city.  

Why Use a Newspaper

Characteristics of a Newspaper

  • Provides recent information on current events and interests
  • Provides opinions pieces in editorials
  • Written for a general audience
  • Shorter articles
  • Conversational language
  • Reviewed by an editor
  • Written by newspaper staff writers or sometimes wire service writers such as writers from Reuters or the Associated Press
  • Published by commercial organizations
  • Typically do not have a list of citations
  • Includes images and advertisements

Examples

  • New York Times
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Arizona Republic

Trade publications publishes information that is of interest to members of a particular profession or industry such as educators, lawyers, welders, law enforcement, etc. They generally cover recent developments in the field or summarize latest research findings in the field. Trade publications are sometimes referred to as trade journals. 

Why Use a Trade Publication

Characteristics of a Trade Publication

  • Latest trends and techniques in a profession
  • Latest research findings in a profession
  • Shared peer insights and experiences in a profession
  • Written for those who work or are interested in a field
  • Might include a brief list of references
  • Might include advertisement geared towards those in the field
  • Written by practitioners or members of professional organizations in the field
  • Published by a trade association
  • Include industry jargon

Examples

  • Education Digest
  • Police Chief
  • Variety
  • Advertising Age

Books are great information resources but are not good if you need the latest information on a topic. It takes about a year (or longer) for a book to get published, so by the time you have the book in your hand, the information in that book is at least a year out of date. 

Reference books

Books

Reference books are helpful for:

  • Helping you refine your topic
  • Getting an overview of a subject
  • Getting background information
  • Learning the vocabulary of that subject
  • Identifying key thinkers in that discipline.
  • Getting facts and statistics
  • Learning definitions
  • Examples: Encyclopedias and dictionaries

Books are helpful for: 

  • Getting stable information on a topic that does not change frequently
  • Receiving a broad look at a subject
  • Learning about the historical perspective on an event
  • Providing a literary analysis of a work

 

When deciding what types of sources would best meet your needs, it is helpful to understand the information timeline. When an event happens, information on that event gets filtered down through different sources.  As it gets farther down the information timeline, the more that event is analyzed.

The initial information that is disseminated includes quick facts and interviews about the event that is published in the news and online.  As time progresses, the information is studied in more depth and is then published in journals or books. 

View this video to learn more about the Information Timeline and Types of Sources:

So if you have a new or recent topic, you are not likely going to find much in journals or books. Also, information that comes out initially may or may not be properly verified and might be biased based on who is reporting it. As information progresses down the timeline, it is looked at in more depth and is then published in scholarly journal articles and books. For this reason, most instructors prefer you to use scholarly journal articles and books as your sources.