Not all sources are created equal

A guide to using sources in academic papers

Gather your sources

Graphic of a writer

Once you have a topic, gather sources so you can begin your research. Here are a few tips to keep this from feeling too overwhelming:

You’ll probably be using a good deal of scholarly sources for most college-level papers, so consult the library’s website as the portal through which you find books and electronic databases. You can consult the library help desk or the Writing Center for help on searching.

Once you’ve done research, prioritize your sources. Start with more introductory material to learn the basic facts and then move on to explore sources that emphasize evaluation and interpretation. Don’t feel you have to read every single word of every single source — scan for relevant material and then read carefully in more important sections.

Take notes as you read your sources. Write down important ideas, quotations, and your own analysis. Writing as you read (instead of waiting until the end) will save you lots of time and energy. Look for the central ideas of sources and think about how these could be organized. Allow ideas to emerge through your research.

Types of sources

Bookshelf in a library

Take care when choosing sources as there are several different kinds. Most college papers can make good use of the following three, but if you’re unsure about a particular source, ask your professor about it.

Primary sources

These are sources, materials, or evidence that were actually created during the time that you are studying. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would be a primary source in a paper on the Civil War.

Secondary sources

These are usually written “after the fact” of primary sources. They offer perspectives that analyze or interpret earlier primary sources. For example, an article written by a professor that provides a historical context of the Emancipation Proclamation would be a secondary source.

Tertiary sources

These are distillations of multiple sources or overviews of relevant materials. They can be almanacs, textbooks, encyclopedias, indexes, manuals, and so forth. For example, an encyclopedia entry on the Civil War would be a tertiary source.

Scholarly sources

What is a scholarly source exactly?

Good question! A scholarly source is a secondary source written by a “scholar,” which is someone who typically has a graduate degree or Ph.D. in the subject or field he or she is writing about.

FYI: “Academic source” is another way of saying “scholarly source.”

Where do I find a scholarly source?

  • They are found in print and online journals as well as books.
  • For example, a scholarly source could be an article in a journal on American history analyzing the language used in the Emancipation Proclamation by an author who has a Ph.D. in English, History, or Linguistics.
  • A post on someone’s “History Buff” blog, however, would NOT be a scholarly source because the identity and education level of the individual is unknown or unverifiable. Further, this type of material is not generally reviewed by experts for accuracy and relevance.

How do I start my search for a scholarly source?

  • Go to the VCU Library! Visit the reference desk and ask a librarian to help you find the academic sources for your topic.
  • Visit the library web page and search for your topic in the articles database (NOT the entire library database). This will lead you to articles in academic journals appropriate for use in scholarly research.

But what about Wikipedia?

Graphic of a computer

Wikipedia and other similar websites are not acceptable sources for most college papers. They’re open to anonymous and collaborative editing which makes their reliability an issue. Also, doing a simple Google search for your topic does not count as actual research. Don’t be afraid to dig deep and get your hands dirty!

A tool for getting started...

Used responsibly, Wikipedia and Google can be useful resources, providing valuable tools for jumpstarting or directing the early phases of your research. Explore what they have to offer at the beginning of your research process.

More responsible ways to make these academically notorious resources work for you:

  • Topic too broad? Google it and peruse the results for more specific ways to look at or define the topic.
  • Still too broad? Scan the Wikipedia entry on the topic, focusing on the references at the bottom of the page. These can sometimes lead to trustworthy background information or credible sources that you can actually utilize and cite in your paper.
  • Looking for related topics? Check the “See Also” section at the bottom of most Wiki entries—this can help you make connections between your topic and broader issues.
  • Use the “External links” or “Further Reading” to expand your initial inquiry. This can lead to solid sources or new ways of looking at your topic.