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Beginning Researcher's Guide to Sources

Reliable Print Sources

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Note: this article will focus on print sources. For information about reliable webs sources you may consult Reliable Web Sources.

When students first start writing research papers in lower and middle grades, they rely on sources like encyclopedias and atlases, in addition to a few reliable web sources. Gradually, students learn to use more sophisticated resources.

High school students will be required to use a variety of good sources for major research projects. But how do you know what sources are good and what sources are not so good?

Books as Sources

For the most part, the books you use as sources should be nonfiction, meaning they should contain facts, and not made up stories. A historical novel should not serve as a source for a history research paper, for example. A few good nonfiction examples are:

  • Memoirs
  • Biographies
  • Nature and geography books
  • Textbooks
  • Psychology and self-help books
  • Reference books

There are some exceptions to this nonfiction rule. Obviously, you might be able to use fiction books when you are writing a literature paper to compare the writing styles of two authors. Common sense should guide you when considering a fictional book as a source.

The books you use should be as current as possible. When writing a research paper about human evolution, for example, you might find that the timeline has changed within the past few years! Every new discovery can change the textbooks.

One great tool for finding books for your research is WorldCat. This site is a giant guide to library content all over the world. You can search for books by typing in a keyword or topic, and get results sorted by location (find the books in nearby libraries) or by date of publication.

Magazines as Sources

Magazines are somewhat risky when it comes to research. Ultimately, it will be up to your teacher to determine whether certain magazines are scholarly enough to serve as reliable sources for your specific assignment. Always ask your teacher if you have any doubts about a source!

If you must make a decision on your own, you should consider the reasons why magazines are considered risky. First, there are two main types of well-known magazines: news magazines and popular interest magazines. News magazines are the better choice.

The most familiar news magazines in the United States are Newsweek and Time. These magazines are written by professional journalists who consult reliable sources—but they don’t always cite their sources. As a researcher, you should always be able to track down the origin of the information you use. Nonetheless, your teacher may consider news magazines as reliable enough.

Popular interest magazines will vary so wildly in reliability that many teachers will frown upon magazines as a whole. However, you might find a magazine devoted to specific animals, places, or disciplines, and those can be very reliable. Again—just ask if you’re in doubt.

Journal Articles as Sources

Journal articles can be some of the most reliable articles, but the most scholarly journals can be the hardest to get your hands on!

Journal articles are written by researchers from governments, industries, and universities. They are not like “popular” reading material; instead, they are scientific and fact-filled, and so they are housed in academic libraries (as opposed to community or school libraries). Some journals are published online, and will provide downloadable articles.

You can use WorldCat to locate the libraries that carry specific journals. If you find a great article and discover that it is contained in a local college library, you can visit that library and track it down by asking for help from a reference librarian.

Encyclopedias and Dictionaries as Sources

As a high school student, you may be able to use encyclopedias and dictionaries for research, but these sources are really best for providing a good foundation of information to get you started. As research assignments get more serious, students should use general reference books like these mainly as background, preliminary information sources.

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