Sources of Information

See also: Planning an Essay

Being able to research and use materials which back up your study or offer different interpretations of your study area is an essential aspect of studying and learning. 

Primarily you need to be aware of where to look for information, how to access it and how to use it.  You must also be able to scrutinise your sources to check that they are relevant and of a suitable nature to be included within your work.

This page explores the different types of documents available and how you may access them.  Our further pages: Effective Reading and Critical Reading provide more information about how interpret the various sources of information.

Finding Information

You may assume, automatically, that academic text books are the primary source of information when you are engaged in a formal study programme.  This may be true, to a degree, usually there is little need to question the credibility of such texts – they have probably been recommended by a tutor.  There are, however, many other sources of information which should not be overlooked.  Such sources include: the internet, newspapers, journals, transcripts from radio or TV programmes, leaflets, photographs and other artefacts (man-made objects).

Within the category of books there are many different types and genres, for example: fiction and non-fiction, including dictionaries, encyclopaedias, biographies, almanacs, archives, yearbooks and atlases, to name just a few.  There are even more categories of websites and other internet resources.  All sources of information can be of relevance depending on the subject matter of the research or project you’re working on.

It is important to understand that all information will have a certain degree of validity or otherwise.  A document can be easily forged or altered, especially on the internet where anybody can publish anything.  It is therefore necessary to use judgement when deciding which documents to use in the context of your study.

All documents that you use for study fall into one of three categories:

Primary Documents

A primary document is a document that was written at the time of an event or period of research.  Primary documents therefore include literary texts, letters, speeches and historical documents such as birth certificates and diaries.  A live news-feed (or the transcript of) is a primary source – recording events as they unfold.  Of course any major news event (like the Olympic Games) is likely to have several primary sources, accounts from different broadcasters.  To get a fuller idea of the event you may look at more than one primary source of information – taking into account biases, points-of-view and personal or cultural perceptions.

Secondary Documents

A secondary document is written after an event - usually the authors will not have witnessed the event themselves.  Such documents are usually written with reference to primary documents and attempt to provide an interpretation.  Core texts - academic texts related to the topic being studied - are an example of secondary documents.  In current affairs a secondary source would be a standard news story.  A story that has been reported after the event.  As a secondary source is a writer’s interpretation of what happened (a primary source) it is more likely to contain observations, bias and subjective commentary that try to explain the event and put it into some sort of context.

Tertiary Documents

Tertiary documents usually act as pointers to primary and secondary documents.  They are indexes, directories, bibliographies and other categorised collections of information - documents that you can turn to and be guided to other, potentially relevant, documents on a particular subject.  For example, checking the bibliography of books can help to lead you to further research material or to looking at a list of similar stories on a news website.

Where to Get Your Information

There are a lot of different sources of information available to you as a student.  The following list cannot hope to cover all sources of information, rather, it contains the main sources you are likely to find useful.

Wherever you get your information, to ensure that you conform to academic standards and rules, you should keep a note of your sources.

In the case of books and journals you should take especial care to note page numbers if you intend to use a quote or to paraphrase or summarise from any publication.

For internet resources you need at least the URL (web address) as well as the date that you accessed any web-page from which you quote or to which you refer.

Do not overlook proper referencing, plagiarism is a serious academic offence – your assignments are likely to fail if you do not reference correctly or understand how to reference.

For more help with referencing and avoiding plagiarism see our page Academic Referencing.

Library Sources

It is often possible to go to a physical library without being a member and to search through the shelves and access publications and other resources.  If you are studying at a college or university you are likely to have access to their library.  A lot of libraries will have a retrieval system to help you to locate documents – such systems are commonly accessed via a computer, although some older systems still exist.  Retrieval systems enable you to search a database of titles held at the library, usually by either the author, the title of the book or publication or to enter broader terms, like the subject you are researching, to see a list of available publications.

It is now common, especially in educational establishments, for libraries and the documents that they hold, to be available online.  There are numerous obvious advantages to this:

  • You can access the information you want, when you want – not just when the physical library is open.
  • You can access the information from anywhere that has an internet connection.
  • As documents (books, journals, articles etc.) are held electronically, numerous people can be reading the same document at the same time.
  • You can search electronic documents, or whole libraries of documents, quickly to find relevant information.

There are also some potential disadvantages of the ‘digital library’:

  • The documents available electronically may be limited.  This will depend, to an extent, on which documents your university has subscribed to or bought electronic versions of.  Older and historic documents may not be available electronically.
  • Some people find it easier to work with physical copies of books and journals – to flip through the pages and easily bookmark sections.

It is good practice to use a combination of library resources, familiarise yourself with the library facilities available to you and the type of documents that are available.

Internet Sources

There is a phenomenal amount of information available online, via web-pages, blogs, forums, social media, catalogues and so on. As there is so much information available and because such information can be published quickly and easily by anybody and at any time, it is important that you are vigilant in choosing reliable sources.

For many subjects the internet can be a very important place to research. In some disciplines the internet may be the most appropriate - or only - way of gathering information.  This can be particularly true of subjects related to technology or current affairs. Whenever you use the internet for research, remember that the authorship, credibility and authenticity of internet documents is often difficult to establish. For this reason you need to be vigilant and take care when using the internet for academic research.

If you are studying formally, in a school, college or university, you should check what your institution’s guidelines are for using internet sources in your work. Some institutions may penalise you, by marking down your work, if your references are mainly from online sources – especially sources that have not been specifically ‘approved’ by your tutor.

Use good judgement and common sense when researching online.  Whether or not a source is appropriate or useful will largely depend on your area of study. Some quick tips for general internet research:

  • Check the domain name of the site. Generally domain names that include .ac. or .edu. are educational establishments. Domain names ending in .gov are reserved for government purposes.  In the UK the and domain names are subject to strict eligibility rules set by UKERNA (United Kingdom Education and Research Networking Association). This means that they can only be used by educational or government institutions. There are usually no such rules for registering .com, .org, .net or many of the other common and regional domain name types. You don’t have to be in the UK or meet any specific criteria to register a domain name, for example. This is not to say that .com (or others) are not good, reliable sources of information, just be wary of quality and bias. Of course is fine.

  • How did you arrive at the source?  If you followed a link from your college or university then the chances are you are being encouraged to read the online article. If you found the resource via a search engine or a link on another website then you may need to scrutinise it more carefully.

As a start, you may find it useful to use the Google Scholar search (rather than the regular Google).  Google Scholar returns results from books, journals and other academic sources -

Sources from Bibliographies

Another way of locating information, books or publications, which might have a bearing on the topic being researched is to check through the bibliography of core texts or related books.  Authors will have consulted other scholars and by checking their bibliography you will discover related publications which may well enhance your own research.  Some authors will also provide a list of recommended reading and since they have already researched the subject area it may be worth taking note of their findings.

Sources from Colleagues

It is always worth discussing your study with friends, family and colleagues - you will often find that they have some interesting points of view and sometimes they may be able to help with sourcing of information.  They may, for example, have studied the area at some time or know someone who has and be able to find or lend you relevant books or other resources.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

Skills You Need

Develop the skills you need to make the most of your time as a student.

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