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Research Skills (TM)

Research Skills

Research is the process of searching for credible information, or sources. Sources take various forms, such as written documentation, audio-visual materials, information found over the internet, in-person interviews, and more. Sources may answer specific questions posed in a text, enrich the information the writer provided on a topic, or support a writer’s argument. In the twenty-first century, locating sources is easy; however, finding and determining quality sources involves careful evaluation of each one. Reading tests usually will include questions that ask you to categorize types of sources and evaluate which sources are appropriate for a specific task.

Types of Sources

The sources researchers use depend on their purpose. If the researcher’s purpose is to analyze, interpret, or critique a historical event, a creative work, or a natural phenomenon, the researcher will use primary or original sources. Primary sources were produced by people with firsthand experience of an event. Examples of primary sources include:

  • letters and emails
  • autobiographies, diaries, and memoirs
  • firsthand or eyewitness accounts or descriptions of events
  • interviews, questionnaires, and surveys
  • speeches and lectures
  • photographs, drawings, and paintings
  • news stories written at the time of the event

To identify the type of source, ask yourself, “Did the author personally experience the event they’re writing about?” If so, it’s a primary source.

The written analysis or interpretation of a primary source is considered a secondary source. These sources are written by people who did not have firsthand experience of the topic being described. Instead, authors of secondary sources examine primary sources in order to draw conclusions or make generalizations about people, events, and ideas. Examples of secondary sources include:

  • literary criticism and interpretation
  • biographies
  • historical criticism
  • political analyses
  • essays on ethics and social policies

A tertiary source is a list or compilation of primary and secondary sources. A tertiary source doesn’t provide analysis or new information—it simply lists other sources. Examples of tertiary sources include:

  • bibliographies
  • encyclopedias
  • almanacs
  • textbooks

Evaluating Sources

It is best to begin evaluating sources by evaluating the credibility of the author. What is the author’s motivation? The author’s purpose or reason for writing the text may indicate whether the text is biased. Next, researchers must identify the author’s background and expertise. Although educational credentials are significant, firsthand experience offers equally reliable information.

Questions to consider include:

  • Is the source current?
  • If it is a secondary source, is it based on both primary as well as other secondary sources?
  • Is the author an expert in the area of study? Does he or she cite relevant information from other authorities on the topic?
  • Is the author’s purpose clear? That is, is there any apparent bias?
  • What does the author assume is true?
  • Does the author present multiple viewpoints?
  • Does the content align with other reliable sources on the topic?

It can also be helpful to look at where the text was published. Sources like academic journals and established newspapers are more likely to have rigorous standards for publication, which means their articles are fairly reliable. On the other hand, open-source platforms like blogs and websites are more likely to contain biased material.

To evaluate a website, determine who the intended audience is and if there’s an agenda in terms of selling something or promoting a belief system. For example, a health website created by a company selling nutritional supplements will not be as authoritative as a site maintained by a government health organization, since the company might omit relevant information that would hinder its sales. Similarly, a website for a particular candidate for public office might not be as good a source of unbiased policy information as a website maintained by a neutral nonprofit organization if elements or consequences of those policies do not align with the candidate’s platform.

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