How to Select Sources for Academic Research
When writing for academic purposes, it is important to support your ideas and arguments with others’ research and content. At university—whether at undergraduate, postgraduate, or doctorate level—it is expected that you’ll be engaging with your big topic to the highest degree.
What kind of sources should I select and why?
Selecting which sources to reference is particularly important, as it shows the type of academic discussions in which you’re trying to join. If you’re reading well-respected materials, it will not only show that engagement, but it will also improve your own understanding of the topic. You’re not just doing this to tick a box, but to genuinely deepen your knowledge!
So when you’re thinking about which sources to go for, choose ones that are appropriate for your subject area. Broadly speaking, anything in Humanities and you’ll most likely be engaging with journals and published books. STEM subjects tend to focus on journals and studies, as there are articles in which they present the findings of their specific research. The Arts are broad, as you’ll be most likely be expected to engage with the practical and the theoretical. However, these generalisations do not cover the breadth of materials available; you might look at modern journalism, online blogs and videos, conference talks, informal seminars. For a full list of the kinds of materials you might end up referencing, you’ll find Cite This For Me has a comprehensive take. (Note: this link takes you to the Harvard referencing list. Please make sure you use the referencing style appropriate for your essay).
You’ll need to make sure these sources are reputable and appropriate—we’ll talk more about that later—but making sure they cover a range of views and areas is a good place to start.
Where can I look?
If academic research is new to you, you might be stumped in the first instance; it can be daunting to start on a fresh project only to feel like you don’t have the right type of resources.
Luckily, gone are the days when you could only trawl through dusty library shelves in order to find relevant books and journals—although that’s still a viable option! Your university will have a wealth of information and services to help you find what you need at every step of your research. (Note: The following tips focus more on scholarly journals than other research materials).
Find out how to get on to your university’s intranet or online library search. These are often introduced to you at the beginning of your academic studies, but you can refresh with the staff in library services at any time. It’s their job to help you understand how it works! On that site, you can search for specific authors, topics, article titles—they have it all at your fingertips and will give you either an online copy to read or directions to the exact shelf in the library where you can find it.
You can also search online using Google Scholar—this will look specifically at academic sources and pull out the ones most appropriate for your search terms. Universities typically pay for online access to well-known and respected journals, so look for the option to sign in via your institution when you get onto different sites (you’ll need your university email and login for this—if you have trouble, check back with your library again!)
If you’re not sure of an exact article you’re looking for—or if you’re looking for inspiration on what kinds of topics to engage with—you can search for journals that cover your subject area. For example, if I begin typing ‘journal of’ on a search engine, it suggests titles such as ‘journal of applied physiology’ and ‘journal of science and medicine in sport’. Finding respected journals online is as simple as a search!
Another way to find valid sources for your research is to check the reading lists for your course or module. These are often given out with module information at the beginning of the year or can be found online on your course/university intranet. Those who teach on your course are experts in their field, so following their advice and looking at the suggested reading will undoubtedly improve your knowledge, and might bring up some interesting sources to use later on. Ask your tutor or supervisor if you’re unsure where to find them.
Lastly, but one of my favourite, is to look at what other academics are citing in their work. All peer-reviewed materials will have their own bibliographies—search out those cited articles for more useful material to possibly include in your own work. You might be surprised by what you can find!
How do I check?
Of course, it’s important not only to cite widely, but to make sure that the sources you’re using are relevant and—importantly—respectable. As discussed above, different subjects will have different criteria for this (especially given that the Humanities and Social Sciences often look at popular culture, which could include just about any source!).
So, although you can derive your source from just about anywhere, here are a few tips on how to check them for their validity.
Is it verified or peer-reviewed?
In the age of the internet, wrongful information is rampant. In the academic world, this is prevented through something called peer review; it essentially means that journals will have a board of academics who will check over and approve every article that they publish. This means that no one can publish willy-nilly. Many peer-review journals reject a lot of the articles they receive as submissions, as they are rigorous in their evaluation and their standards are incredibly high, meaning they only publish the cream of the crop.
To check if a journal is peer-reviewed, you can view the publisher’s website or in one of its printed copies; here you should find a list of the journal’s editorial board. Are they experts? Do they bring in academics from other institutions to thoroughly check the work? If yes, then you have a credible, peer-reviewed journal in your hands.
Your university database (mentioned above) may also be able to tell you whether or not a journal is peer-reviewed; you can also filter your searches so that only peer-reviewed articles appear in your results.
Who is the author? Are they reputable?
This connects with the above point that there are ways that academics can be verified as credible.
Google scholar is a great way to find academics and their work. If you type in their name, do they come up in many search results? Those who have published previously and often in their respective academic field can generally be trusted as an expert. You can also check for how often they’ve been cited by others using Google Scholar; if other academics are quoting them often, you can definitely trust their work.
Are they part of an academic institution? What are their qualifications? All of these are just an internet search away!
If it’s not a journal, can you trust it?
As stated above, not every source you need will necessarily come from an academic, peer-reviewed journal. What do you do if you want to cite something less formal?
As a general rule, don’t trust publicly-edited sites (like Wikipedia)—you need sources that can be corroborated. (Although, here’s a fun hint: if you’re checking Wikipedia, look at the references at the bottom of the page as you might find something useful!)
Otherwise, you must use your judgement; you can google the author or the website, look at reviews and ratings, or cross-reference with other sources to make sure that the information is correct.
Furthermore, you can use your judgement to decide whether the ‘credibility’ is relevant for your work; if you’re looking for the opinions of teenagers on a certain event, then quoting from a Twitter account without a blue tick is perfectly reasonable!
There you have it! I hope you’ve found this article useful in your quest to find reputable sources—they are out there!
Is there anything else in the realm of academic writing that you’d like me to cover? What other topics would you like me to talk about?
Until next time,