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Research 101

The steps of the research process & how to apply them.

2a. Overview of Sources

Finding Information

The key to effective research is knowing where to locate the best information sources for your topic.

Sources of Information

Figure 1
The Information Timeline

Note. From The Information Timeline, by East Caroline University Joyner Library, , YouTube ( CC BY.

Types of Information Sources

Figure 2
Scholarly vs. Popular Periodicals

Note. From Scholarly vs. Popular Periodicals, by Vanderbilt University, , YouTube ( Copyright by Vanderbilt University.


Scholarly publications disseminate research and academic discussion among professionals.

  • The author is usually a scholar or researcher.

  • Vocabulary includes specialized terminology or jargon of the field.

  • Has a regular, clearly defined structure with an abstract, objective, methodology, results, analysis, and conclusion.

  • May include charts or graphs but rarely includes photographs or other illustrations.

  • Always lists references in a bibliography.

  • Peer-reviewed before publication.


Popular publications inform and entertain the general public.

  • An author’s name may or may not be given.

  • The vocabulary is understandable to most readers.

  • Usually includes illustrations and photographs, and is eye-catching.

  • Rarely has a list of references or gives complete information about sources.

  • Articles are not evaluated by experts.


Trade publications are neither scholarly nor popular sources.

They are a combination of both, allowing practitioners in specialized industries to share market and product information to improve their businesses.

Figure 3

Scholarly Articles or Popular Magazine Articles?

Figure 4
Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Note. From Primary vs Secondary Sources, by R. Redmon, , YouTube ( Copyright by Rob Redmon.


Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event, topic, or historical time period.

  • Typically produced at the time of the event by a person who experienced it.

  • Can also be made later in the form of personal memoirs or oral histories.

  • May include:

    • Historical or legal documents
    • Eyewitness accounts
    • Results of experiments
    • Statstical data or surveys
    • Creative writing
    • Audio and video recordings
    • Interviews
    • Speeches
    • Art objects
    • Internet communications


Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, analyze, evaluate, or summarize primary sources

  • Any source that discusses or evaluates someone else’s original research is a secondary source.

  • May be found in:

    • Newspapers
    • Popular magazines
    • Scholarly journals
    • Books


Tertiary sources, not mentioned in the video (Figure 4), provide an overview or summary of a topic

  • Tertiary sources may reference both primary and secondary sources.

  • Information is displayed as factual and includes minimal analysis or critique.

  • May include:

    • Almanacs
    • Dictionaries
    • Encyclopedias
    • Directories
    • Guidebooks
    • Indexes
    • Abstracts
    • Manuals
    • Textbooks

Table 1

Comparison of Primary and Secondary Sources

LiteraturePoemScholarly article interpreting poem
HistoryNewspaper account of the Lager Beer Riot in Book about German immigrants in the United States
ScienceOriginal research in a journal articleScholarly article applying research results to a problem
MathematicsAlgebra problemExplanation of the step-by-step solution to the problem

What is Peer Review?


Peer Review
A process for vetting scholarly publications; articles are stripped of identifying information and examined by other subject experts to determine if they are sufficiently rigorous for publication. Peer review is the main distinction between popular and scholarly sources.


Peer review isn’t perfect … it’s just the best we’ve got.

Peer review is a means of ensuring that scholarly research articles meet certain requirements and expectations of their field, but the peer-review process sometimes fails, which is why scientific and other academic disciplines are ongoing conversations, often involving self-correction.

Check out Retraction Watch, a site that monitors when journals retract peer-reviewed articles for reasons of error, poor data, dishonesy, plagiarism, or fraud. The site maintains a database of retractions across the spectrum of academic publications:

For further information on questionable peer-reviewed literature, see these resources:

Limiting to Peer Review

Most databases allow you to limit your results to peer-reviewed articles.

Most of research databases available at NWOSU are hosted by the company EBSCO and have a similar layout. After you’ve conduced a search, select Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals in the left sidebar to limit your results:

Figure 5
Limiters in an EBSCO Database
Options to limit sources in an EBSCO database.

A similar option is available in the library catalog:

Figure 6
Limiters in the Library Catalog
Option to limit to peer-reviewed sources in the library catalog.

Remember, the data in the catalog is not always accurate, so even if you are using a limiter, it is your responsibility to make sure your sources are really peer reviewed.