The Research Process: Step 3

Finding Sources

Students often wonder about the purpose of research papers. After all, most students don’t particularly like writing them, and, if professors are to be believed, most teachers don’t like grading them. So why go through all the agony?

Well, as old-fashioned as it might sound, doing research is good for you! Almost every job will require you to be able to take new information and combine it with what you know to improve processes and systems. Whether it’s done in a formal research paper or not, the research process will be part of your life.

When will you need to do research? The opportunities are endless:
• Buying a car.
• Choosing a major.
• Deciding on a health-care plan.
• Voting for a candidate.

Let’s take the first example: buying a car. You’re thinking of getting a used car and your local dealership has two nice red cars with about the same number of miles on the lot: a Honda and a Chevy. How do you decide? Well, you do some research:
• Ask friends who own Hondas or Chevys.
• Ask some mechanics about the types of problems those cars have.
• Check Consumer Reports or other magazines that deal with car and consumer issues to see which car has gotten a better rating.

Taking all the information you gathered, you are then in a better position to make an informed decision about which cherry-red car will be gracing your driveway.

Now, let’s try an academic example:
You’ve been assigned a paper on whether nature or nurture is the primary factor in determining human personality. As I mentioned in the last post, you might want to check an encyclopedia or two to ensure that you know what the terms mean. Then you need to get some sources. What are the best sources for such a paper?

Well, one thing you could do is round up a bunch of infants and conduct experiments on them. But that does take up a lot of time. Plus, there are ethical issues. And parents often balk at giving up their children for college students’ scientific experiments.

But who does experiments? Psychologists! And when they do them, how do they report their findings? In academic journals! And where do you find journals? In your library!

Despite where you find your sources, they should have some common characteristics:
• Authority. Is the source considered an expert in the field? Is there some reason to believe him or her? (This is important. In the world of the Internet, where anyone can post comments and be Googled, authority is more relevant than ever!)
• Relevance. There should be a direct connection to your research. Sometimes students, in an effort to make sure they have enough sources in their papers, simply add quotations that have little connection to the topic at hand. Make sure that each source backs up a point. Also, check the publication date; in some fields, such as information technology, materials can become out of date very quickly (2-3 years may make a source a dinosaur in some fields).
• Reliability. Just as you may go to the same mechanic over and over because you know he’s trustworthy and does good work, the same is true of sources.
Click here for a more in-depth look at evaluating sources. And if you ever need help with choosing sources, stop by the library. Or email me, your Jolly Librarian!

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