Finding Scholarly Sources

Research in print is often divided into two basic types: primary and secondary sources.

Primary research is data unmediated by someone else's interpretation. Examples of primary research sources include interviews, survey numbers, laboratory results, census information, and so forth. For your research project, you will need to identify the kind of primary research you'd like to conduct.

Secondary research reflects the interpretation of data by those qualified in the field. Although you would cite an opinion piece or essay as a secondary source, simple opinion pieces do not really qualify as secondary research. "Secondary sources" usually means scholarly books, articles published in scholarly journals, or technical reports published by a reputable private or government organization.

How can I tell whether it's a scholarly journal?

General interest magazines are those that you'd find on a news stand: Time, Life, Wired, PC, Scientific American, and The New Yorker are all examples of general interest magazines. They usually have illustrations and colorful covers, and the writing is designed to appeal to the general public.

Special interest magazines like The Chronicle of Higher Education, Academe, and Engineering News Record are aimed at a particular audience--education or engineering, in these examples--but they are not peer-reviewed journals.

Scholarly journals are those that publish peer-reviewed articles. The articles are designed to be read and understood by an audience of professionals in the field. They generally use technical terms, equations, and concepts that would not be understood by those outside the profession. Many of them are available in the databases in our library (Project Muse, etc.), but if you see them on the shelves in the library, you'll notice that the covers are nondescript.

Searching for Secondary Sources

The blessing and the curse of the Web is that searching has become so easy to do; many people just plug a few words into our Google toolbar and see what happens. Sorting and evaluating those resources is a different story, however. The first results might be neither authoritative nor useful to your research. The search exercise for this week asks you to evaluate a number of sources, some of which you will probably not already know about, in terms of their authority and usefulness.

What Web Searches Will and Will Not Discover

A general web search will retrieve the following:

1. Authoritative web sites, such as those sponsored by government organizations, universities, or scientific groups devoted to the study of a particular phenomenon. One way to start evaluating these is to look at the domain suffix: government web sites have .gov domain names, university sites have .edu, and organizations have .org. The .gov and .edu domain names are regulated. However, since many private individuals and organizations have a .org name regardless of nonprofit status, these shouldn't be used as definitive guides to the site's authority.

2. Personal or special interest group web sites, which may feature factual information but often include opinions and sometimes opinions disguised as facts. Before you cite one of these, check its credentials. See for some suggestions.

3. Commercial sites, some of which have nothing to do with your search term but have stuffed the metatags in the document with irrelevant terms so as to increase their search rankings. Metatags help search engines to categorize web pages properly. They are invisible when you visit web sites; you can see a site's metatag by clicking on the View Source tag in your web browser, if you are interested.

4. Aggregate sites or "link farms." Some search sites are simply aggregates of other searches, many of which are links to commercial sites. These are usually a waste of time, and if you've done searches before on your topic, you'll quickly learn which ones to avoid. Google has recently updated its algorhythms to push these further down in the search results.

5. Weblogs or blogs. In very basic terms, a weblog ("blog") is a web page that uses a special template so that it is easily updated; most weblogs function as spaces for expression about the blogger's interests. Some are sponsored by companies; some mix evaluative or informative content with personal observations, such as Lifehacker, Engadget, and Gizmodo.

Remember, however, that most bloggers have a definite point of view and are not impartial. You can see this if you compare the way the news is reported on liberal political blogs like Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, or Huffington Post with the treatment of the same news on conservative blogs like Instapundit, Ann Althouse, or Little Green Footballs. (Note: According to the Chicago Manual of Style, blog titles should be in italics, like a book title.)

A general web search will not retrieve the following:

1. Materials inside subscription databases, including the major journals in a field. These should be the foundation of your research report, and a Google search will not reveal all of them.

2. The contents of books. Google Books and Google Scholar search inside some books, but your view may be restricted unless you purchase the book.

3. Scholarly journals in paper format. In English, at least, several important journals are not yet available online.