Using academic sources

A guide to finding, reading, evaluating and incorporating academic sources into your work

Finding academic sources

Preliminary steps

  • What facts do you need to get started?
  • Background research can help frame your question

Consider the question you are trying to answer

  • Different types of sources can help you answer different parts of your research question
  • Consider whether you need primary sources, secondary sources, or even Wikipedia

Use reliable search engines/databases

  • Peer-reviewed sources (checked for quality by other scholars) and other appropriate sources are available through VCU Libraries
  • Be sure to critically evaluate your sources (see section below)

The search: narrowing it down

  • Keywords, also referred to as search terms, are words that are related to your topic
  • Keywords help categorize research within the database
  • Use keywords to make your search specific
    • "Environmentalism" = too broad
    • "Carbon footprint" + "veganism" = better!
  • If your search doesn't produce many results, try to use less specific keywords. If your search produces too many results unrelated to your topic, use more specific keywords.

Reading Academic Sources

Introduction (start here)

  • Usually found within the first section of an article
  • Provides an overview of the paper while introducing the context surrounding the topic
  • You can often find the thesis or main claim here

Conclusions

  • Usually the final paragraphs of an article
  • A conclusion will restate the thesis statement along with a basic summary of the research
  • Some resources may have questions for further discussion or extended discussion or research outcomes

Body paragraphs

  • Sub-claims build to support the main claim of an article and tend to be separated into paragraphs
  • Usually after the author makes a sub-claim, they quickly follow it with supporting evidence
  • Depending on the subject area, a paper may have a methodology section, a literature review, and tables or charts

Reference pages

  • Reference pages are often great places to find more sources related to your topic
    • Each reference usually includes the authors' names, article title and the journal or book title (which may be in italics)
    • Skim the references for potential additional resources you can use in your research

Tips to save time while reading

  • Keep track of all your resources in a notebook, Google doc, or some other medium where you can easily refer to them
  • Note/highlight any quotes, statistics, or information that may relate to your research question
  • Look up any unfamiliar terms
  • After you've taken what you can, go back and evaluate your notes to decide what information is helpful for your research

Evaluating academic sources

Once you find academic sources, the next step is to evaluate them to make sure the sources are suited to your research. Below are some questions that will help you determine whether or not the source you found is the source you need.

Authorship

  • What are the authors' credentials or background in this area?
  • Is the author a researcher in this area or a journalist?
  • Does the author have other articles/books on the same topic?

Audience

  • For whom is the source intended?
  • Is this a scholarly, popular, or substantive source?

Relevance

  • Is the content relevant to your research topic?
  • How does the source contribute to your research topic?
  • How does the source relate to your ideas or argument?

Incorporating academic sources

Incorporation is the process of using what you've found to make your argument stronger. This is done in three steps: signal phrases, quoting and paraphrasing, and framing.

  • Signal phrases let the audience know that the author is switching to talk about research.
  • Quoting and paraphrasing is actual material pulled from the source, which can be shortened and reworked to bolster the claim.
  • Framing explains why the source matters and is relevant to the topic.

Another helpful way to think about integration is to relate it to the Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) framework.

  • Think of the signal phrases as your claim: a statement introducing the topic and the source.
  • Think of quoting and paraphrasing as your evidence: direct quotes or ideas from the source.
  • Think of framing as your reasoning: why the source matters and what it says about the topic.