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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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: