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How to Choose Sources for Academic Writing



In this post, we’ll look at how to find and evaluate Academic Sources for your research paper or essay.

Different types of sources

Academic sources can be divided into two types: primary sources and secondary sources.

Primary sources are first-hand sources.

What does this mean? For example, in the case of a car accident where a driver is injured – if you talk to the driver to find out what happened – then the driver is a ‘primary source’ because the accident actually happened to him/her.

So what is a secondary source?

Using the same example, if you talked to another person, for example, another driver pr passer-by that was not involved in the accident and ask them what they witnessed – then this person is considered to be a ‘secondary source’. Someone who is simply reporting what occurred but they were not actually involved in the event.

What is a scholarly source?

A scholarly source is one which is referred to by educators and professionals in the field.

Authors of scholarly sources are typically experts in the subject field and have a lot of knowledge and experience of the subject which they write about. These authors often publish articles or papers in well known academic journals and other respected publications.

What is a popular source?

A popular source is one which you might read on a more regular basis to get information about popular subjects such as fashion, sports or entertainment. These typically include popular magazines, blogs and social media.

When you are writing an academic article, research paper or academic essay it’s important to use academic (scholarly) sources and not popular sources.

Print & electronic sources

The different types of sources can also be categorized by whether they are print or electronic sources.

Print sources typically include books, journals and other printed materials.

Electronic sources typically include scholarly articles published on the internet and academic databases.

For the purpose of academic writing, you can use primary sources and secondary sources but they should all be scholarly sources and not simply popular sources.

Library databases

If you are a student at college or university, then you will normally have access to various library databases, which store an enormous quantity (millions) of scholarly articles published by experts, in many different disciplines or fields.

Public library databases

If you don’t have access to a college or university library, many public libraries often have large databases of scholarly articles which you can access. You can search the internet for scholarly articles and sources to use for your assignment.

However, this doesn’t simply mean doing a Google search, because a standard Google search does not include scholarly databases.

You can also use other reliable sources such as news sources in academic writing, which can be easily found through an internet search, but the emphasis must be on the source being ‘reliable’ such as a major news corporation or publication.

Reliable sources typically include:
  • peer-reviewed articles & journals
  • PhD or MBA dissertations and research
  • websites of educational institutions

Avoiding unreliable sources

Unreliable sources are considered non-academic and you should not use these in your academic writing.

Unreliable sources for the purpose of academic writing include:
  • Wikipedia. Yes, it’s maybe a good starting point when researching a topic, to get a general overview and some ideas, but the reliability of the information published cannot be guaranteed.
  • Personal blogs, websites, forums, tweets and other personal social media.
  • Organization websites. Many such sites are published by organizations which have a specific agenda or political bias and cannot therefore be considered as impartial, reliable or scholarly.
  • Opinion editorials (Op-Eds). These clearly express a personal opinion rather than impartial and factual information.
  • Internet-based company websites. This type of site should not be used because the information presented may be unreliable or may be biased or support a hidden agenda of the company.

There are other popular sources which should be avoided when writing an academic article/paper. In general, many of these sources are self published and produced in response to demand from the public rather than being published in any academic merit.

How to find reliable academic sources

There are a few key questions to ask yourself when searching for reliable sources to use in your academic writing, especially if you’re looking online. Start by asking:
  • who the publisher of the information is, who the author is, and what is the purpose of publication?
  • Is there any obvious bias?
  • Where and how did they obtain the data/information published?
  • Is the information current?

You should try to find out as much as possible about the source before you consider using it for your research paper/academic essay.

Here’s another example.

Assume you’ve been assigned the topic of drug trafficking and you have to write a research paper on this topic. You come up with a research question: are the techniques implemented by U.S. Customs effective in countering drug trafficking through airports.

If you simply enter some keywords related to drug trafficking, then the search results will typically include many non-scholarly sources such as websites which market legal services for people charged with drug trafficking, and similar related but not irrelevant information.

One quick check you can use is to click on the ‘about’ tab or ‘about us’ tab and find out who exactly is behind the website. There’s a big difference between a commercial company marketing its services and a well respected organization which aims to inform and educate.

However, the same online search may also pull up an article published by the Office on Drugs and Crime of the United Nations on its website. If the article is written by the UN, which is an organization which conducts a lot of research in various fields, then it would be considered as a reliable source as such articles are typically well researched and written by renowned experts in the field.

Using Google Scholar to find reliable sources

Remember, you want to find reliable scholarly sources. One of the quickest and easiest ways to do this is by using Google scholar because even though it returns fewer results than a regular Google search, the quality of the results returned is much higher, and there are still enough options to find several reliable and scholarly sources to use for your academic easy or paper.

The majority of academic papers or journals contain an abstract which provides the essential information about the research topic, its scope and depth and the purpose of the research. With this you can quickly see if the article is relevant and how good a fit it is with your own chosen research topic.


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