Collecting sources for a research paper can sometimes be a daunting task. When beginning your research, it’s often a good idea to begin with common search engines, like Google, and general descriptions like you can find on Wikipedia. Often though these are not the sources you ultimately want in your paper. Some tips for getting from this beginning research to finding “good” sources include the following.
- Make a list of research terms you can use when searching in the library or even online. Start with your core list, but also add other keywords and phrases that you notice as you research.
Also, when you find a good source, look to see if it has “tags.” You can add these phrases to your list search terms. Sometimes the tags are also links that you can follow which will take you to lists of similar sources.
- Think about the kind of sources required by the assignment and also the kind of sources that are “good” for your question or topic. Many library search engines and databases have the option to return only “peer-reviewed” or “scholarly” sources—which are sources that have been read by other scholars before being published. Also, the UofL library offers a list of Research Guides which can help you find useful databases for finding sources.
When considering what counts as a “good” source, it’s smart to consider what question you’re asking. If you’re making an argument about how a term is commonly understood, then using dictionaries or Wikipedia would be a good source. If you’re making an argument about developing research in Psychology, then you’ll want to focus on those peer-review or scholarly sources.
- Review the works cited or bibliography section of sources that have already been helpful. The sources they are using will probably be helpful to you also. Some search engines, like Google Scholar, include a link under a source that says “Cited by”—which brings back a list of other sources that have used the source you’re looking at. Google Scholar provides varying quality in their results, depending on the subject area and other things, but it’s a great place to start.
- The reference librarians in Ekstrom library (right next door to the University Writing Center) are available to help you with your research. You can make appointments to meet with them here. During these appointments, they can help you find the most helpful databases, decide what sources might be most helpful, and more.
What can the Writing Center do to help?
Writing Center consultants can meet with you to help you get started and find a good direction when working on a research project. This includes but certainly isn’t limited to brainstorming lists of research terms, deciding which kinds of sources will best help you answer your research question(s), looking at some preliminary helpful sources, and more. Talking about these topics can help you figure out how to approach searching for and finding good sources. We also know how and when to refer you for a follow-up appointment with the Reference Assistance and Instruction department.
Research paper sources can be difficult to find – especially if you want the good ones.
And we want good ones. One of the exercises we often have our students in our online study skills courses do (you can find info on them here) is to think about your teacher having to read all of those papers. If you are a high school English teacher and you’ve assigned 120+ students to write a 10 page research paper, how many do you have to read?
And – knowing how high school students often write – think about how much fun that will be. Sure, some of those papers will be interesting. But there will be some stale ones, too.
Don’t be the student who turns in the stale research paper. It’s a sure way to miss the success level you desire. Instead, find some creative ways to make your research paper interesting. Research papers can be fascinating and enjoyable, especially when you dig up unique and noteworthy research paper sources.
Here are six quick tips that will help you do fast, effective research, and find great research paper sources that will set you apart from your classmates.
1. Start with Wikipedia
A few years ago, this would have been heresy. I’m aware of that.
But I’m not suggesting you should quote the Wikipedia article. We realize that there may still be some negative realities that come with a site that anyone can edit. Sure, occasionally some goof will get some weird information published on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia, though, is more accurate than any other encyclopedia.
As hard as that may be to believe, it’s been tested and found true.
But that’s not even why we’re going to Wikipedia. We go only for two real reasons: first, it’s a nice overview of whatever topic you’re trying to research (let’s say you’re studying learning styles). The Wikipedia article will give you most of the big ideas associated with the topic, as well as link out to other ideas that may be similar. Starting here helps you get your bearings in the subject. After all, you’re stepping into a conversation that has been going on for years and years.
Second – and most importantly – we’re after the citations and sources at the bottom. Wikipedia frequently cites the most important research paper sources for you. It just makes sense to start here. (In our example article – learning styles – there are nearly 50 sources cited)
2. Go to the library (a great place for research paper sources)
After you’ve dug through your Wikipedia article, the next step is an easy one – go to the library. Unless you’re studying something that has recently come into existence (like trying to find research paper sources about Facebook), your local or school library will be your best resource.
Go there, and armed with your Wikipedia knowledge, start searching for the best sources. We’re not just after any sources, though. We’re after only the best research paper sources. This will require a little bit of effort, but you can find some success without too much effort if you know what type of research paper sources you need to find.
3. Find the top few secondary resources cited in the article
Depending on the size of your paper, you’ll use a different number of sources. But the goal is to use the most authoritative sources possible.
If you want to know about teeth, for example, who would you consult – a dentist or a hockey player? The dentist, because he has more experience with teeth, has studied teeth, and he probably has all of his.
But if you’re trying to get some information on the best ice skates to buy, who would you consult – the dentist or the hockey player? Again, you consult the one with the most authority on the particular subject – in this case, the hockey player.
So how can you decide which sources are most authoritative? Try to find the sources that have been cited by the most other sources. This takes a bit of research before you’re able to find these, but as you read several sources, you should start to see a pattern of references. Follow that pattern.
Another place to check is Google Scholar. This service will tell you how many times your different research paper sources have been cited. Use those sources with the most citations.
4. Follow the trail of citations to primary sources
After you’ve found a few good resources that help explain your topic, get to the sources behind those research paper sources.
This is an area you have a real opportunity to set your paper apart from your classmates.
Generally speaking, the closer a resource is to the topic you’re studying, the better.
If you are studying Abraham Lincoln, try to find some letters he himself wrote. Maybe you could find an original newspaper clipping of interviews with the people closest to him. Journal entries are great finds, too.
If you are studying something more recent, sometimes you can find video or audio interviews with major players in your topic. If you’re studying someone who is still alive, maybe you could interview him or her yourself.
Can you imagine how unique your research paper sources would look if you had a personal interview with a high-ranking government official, or a family member close to someone you’re writing about? Get creative here. The more unique your sources and the more creative you are in getting them, the more unique your paper will be.
Make some phone calls, dig through some microfilm (ask your librarian if you don’t know what that is), and search out the most interesting and unique sources you can for your paper.
5. Mix up your research paper source type
Don’t just stick to the normal sources – a book and a few journal articles. These are great resources, but finding truly interesting, unique, and noteworthy research paper sources requires you to go beyond those traditional sources.
They are great places to start. But don’t stop there. Think about some of these other source types for ideas:
- Newspaper articles
- Private journal or diary entries
- Edited collections of essays
- Scholarly journals
- Sound recordings
- Film, TV, or video recordings
- Google books
- Personal interviews
6. Get at least one source per page of your research paper
This sort of a good, general standard that will probably last you through high school and college. Different institutions have different standards, but this is a good starting place. Make sure to check your assignment requirements before you stop researching, though!
I once helped a student gather a number of research paper sources for her final project as a high school student. She got bored, though. So she quit. And she got a terrible grade. That’s what you should expect, too, if you don’t get enough resources.
If you get enough research paper resources while following these tips to make them interesting and unique, and I’m confident your research paper will stand out from your classmates.
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