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John Moritz Library @ NMC: Using Your Sources

Type of Sources

You have an assignment, topic, and keywords. Now what?

Your first urge may be to simply Google your topic. While this a good tool for brainstorming and gathering some general background information, Google may not have the appropriate resources. Ask yourself, What type of information do I need, and how do I get it?

Information Need Source Type Where to Get It
Background

Books

Encyclopedias

Library catalog

Encyclopedia websites

Current

Newspapers

Magazines

Trade journals

Scholarly journals

Library databases

Websites (news, magazines, etc.)

Research & Scholarly Scholarly journals

Library databases

Google scholar (may not have full-text)

Statistics

Government sites

Scholarly journals

Industry reports

Websites

Library databases

 

Periodicals can include newspapers, magazines, trade journals, and scholarly journals. Each type of publication serves a purpose and audience. Generally, you will want to use scholarly journals/peer-reviewed articles for your research papers, but magazines (trade or popular) may provide inspiration or examples to illustrate a point. For instance, you might use an article from Women's Health to demonstrate the information patients are reading regarding nutrition and weight loss and how it may be misinterpreted.

  Popular Trade Scholarly
Appearance Glossy pages, lots of ads, illustrations Glossy pages, illustrations, ads targeted to specific industry interests Plain cover and paper, black and white graphics (rarely color), few to no ads
Audience General public Professionals, members of a particular industry Researchers, professionals, educators
Content News, general interest, personalities, entertainment Industry trends and news, advice and techniques Research studies, methodologies, theories, literature reviews
Authority Articles written by staff writers, rarely in-depth, few to no references Articles written by staff and freelance authors; few to no references

Articles written by researchers and field experts.

Bibliographies contain extensive, scholarly references

Accountability Editorial review Editorial review Peer-reviewed/refereed by other experts in the field
Example Covers & Titles

Cosmopolitan

Newsweek

Entertainment Weekly

Psychology Today

PC World

American Libraries

Journal of the American Medical Association

Applied Radiology

Example Articles "Ditch dieting, get healthy" - Shape

"Obesity Therapy: Reason for dieting affects dieting behavior" -

Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week
"Environmental and genetic pathways between early pubertal timing and dieting in adolescence: distinguishing between objective and subjective timing" - Psychological Medicine

 

Peer-reviewed articles go through a rigorous validation process prior to publication. An article is submitted to a journal, it is reviewed by a panel of experts in that subject area to evaluate the research methods, results, and conclusions. This is why researchers (and your instructors) prefer peer-reviewed articles for research. Your instructors want you to find and use the best.

It also introduces you to the conversations in your field of study. Scholarly articles allow researchers to discuss their findings and anticipate and seek out new discoveries.

Use these guidelines to determine if an article is an empirical study.

  • Is the article published in an academic, scholarly, or professional journal? Popular magazines such as Time or People do not publish empirical research articles; academic journals such as Gender and Society or Child Psychiatry and Human Development do publish empirical articles. 
  • Does the abstract of the article mention a study, an observation, an analysis or a number of participants or subjects? Was data collected, a survey or questionnaire administered, an assessment or measurement used, an interview conducted? All of these terms indicate possible methodologies used in empirical research.
  • Empirical articles normally contain these sections:
    1. Abstract - a paragraph-long summary of the research.
    2. Introduction - sets the research in context, providing a review of related research and stating hypotheses for the research.
    3. Methodology - describes how the research was conducted. Who were the participants? What is the study's design? What did the participants do? What measures were used? How were the study data collected?
    4. Results - describes the final findings reached through analysis of the data through narrative, graphs, tables, and other graphical elements. 
    5. Discussion - contains the interpretations and implications of the study.
    6. Conclusion - brings together the research question, the research statement and/or hypothesis, and the findings.
    7. References - lists the articles, books, and other materials cited in the report.

Criteria for Evaluating Sources

Authority/Author - Why should I trust you?

Everyone - including you - has an agenda and perspective. This can affect how people form a research question, conduct research, analyze and present results, and choose to believe moving forward.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is the author an expert in this field?
  • Where is the author employed?
  • What else has he/she written?
  • What other credentials or honors has the author achieved?

Hint: Most articles will include brief information about the author, but you can also Google the person and affiliated institution to learn more. Search for the author in a database to find more research articles.

More questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the perspective of the author? Is it supported by evidence?
  • What type(s) of expertise or viewpoints does the author assume YOU will have?
  • Does the writing style persuade you to adopt a certain perspective on the topic?
  • Is the language inflammatory, informal, or confusing?
  • Is the author associated with commercial or organizational interests?

Purpose - Why does this exist?

Okay, you found an article in a library database - great! But how do you know this article is appropriate for your needs? Library databases contain a wide variety of articles, from newspaper articles and editorials to peer-reviewed research articles.

Regardless of whether your assignment calls for peer-reviewed articles or news items, you will need to evaluate your selected articles using the following questions.

Why was the article written? To:

  • persuade the reader to do something? For example: vote a certain way, purchase an item, attend an event
  • inform the reader? For example: results of a study/experiment, what happened at an event, treatment guidelines
  • prove something? For example: treatment X cures disease X, drinking soda cause weight gain

Abstracts

Article abstracts or introductions in scholarly articles often tell you exactly the article's purpose. Look for these terms: aim, objective, purpose.

Abstract examples containing the article's purpose:

"Aim: to describe the timing, type and duration of initial infant contact and associated demographic and clinical factors in addition to investigating the impact of early contact on breastfeeding and maternal health and well being after birth."

This abstract highlights the article's purpose: to study the impact of skin-to-skin contact on breastfeeding and maternal health.

"With a large number of births occurring outside the formal health system, it is difficult to determine the number of pregnant women in rural regions of Liberia. The exponential growth of mobile phone use in developing countries provides a potential avenue for data collection on maternal and child health in such rural, remote regions ..."

This abstract implies its purpose: It introduces a problem (unknown number of pregnant women in rural regions) and a potential solution (using cell phones to collect data from birth attendants). The article will walk through the experiment and draw a conclusion about the findings.


Non-scholarly articles may not include an abstract, so you will need to read carefully and consider other criteria.

Type of Journal

For college-level papers, information should be obtained mostly from scholarly journals. Why?

  • Scholarly journals contain articles describing high quality research that has been reviewed by experts in the field prior to publication.
  • By reading and using scholarly articles, you are participating in the conversation of your intended research field.
  • And, frankly, your professors often require it. And they require it for the two reasons above.

Trade magazines may be useful for topics in business or where economic data is needed. They are also good for learning what the current "hot topics" are in a profession or industry.

Popular magazines, such as Time and Newsweek, should be used sparingly, or not at all.

Review the types of journals here.

Organization & Content

An article is only useful if the material is organized, focused, and relevant to your topic. When you read the article, do you understand it? Is it arguing a position, presenting original research, reviewing previous research, or is it an informative piece? Look for:

  • Introduction, background information, presented evidence, discussion and conclusion
  • Persuasive language vs. objective or neutral language
  • Unclear connections between evidence and conclusion

Check out the Anatomy of a Scholarly Article (links off site).

Date of Article

The importance of an article's publication date is subjective to the topic. Health sciences require current information, though seminal work (strongly influencing later developments) may be included.

Usefulness & Coverage

A well-researched, well-written article is only useful if it addresses your research topic. It does not need to answer everyelement of your research, but you should ask yourself:

  • Does this support my argument?
  • Does this refute my argument?
  • Does it give examples I can use (survey results, primary research data, case studies)?
  • Does it provide "wrong" information I can challenge or disagree with in my paper to prove a point?
  • Does the article cover the topic comprehensively, partially, or is it a broad overview?

Audience - Who is this produced this for?

For what type of reader is the author writing for? This ties in with journal typeas popular magazines are geared to the general reader, trade magazines are for the specialist, and scholarly journals are directed at researchers, scholars, or experts in the field. The intended audience reflects the quality of information.

Ask yourself, is the article for:

  • general readers
  • students (high school, college, or graduates)
  • specialists or professionals
  • researchers or scholars

WebMD

WebMD is a lay website and written for general readers. Although health information in a WebMD article may contain accurate information and references to research studies, it does not provide the in-depth, data-driven information necessary for college papers and the clinical environment. It is a tool for consumers, not health providers.

Compare the differences on these migraine articles:

WebMD Scholarly article (click on PDF)

Bias in Research

Detection Bias

When information is collected or verified differently between study groups, detection bias may occur. This could result in over or underestimating a treatment's effectiveness or a cause-effect between a patient characteristic and an outcome (such as obesity and a cancer risk). 

This article evaluates detection bias in a research study:

Wirtz, H. S., Calip, G. S., Buist, D. S., Gralow, J. R., Barlow, W. E., Gray, S., & Boudreau, D. M.  (2017). Evidence for detection bias by medication use in a cohort study of breast cancer survivorsAmerican Journal of Epidemiology, 185(8), 661-671.

Prevention

Blinding can help prevent potential bias. In drug trials, patients should not know which drug they are taking, nor do the study examiners know if patients taking the drug or the placebo (or Drug A vs. Drug B). However, it is possible that examiners may be familiar enough with the drug in question and potentially treat the participants or outcomes differently. Or blinding is not always possible, such as testing a new surgical procedure.

A lack of blinding can result in overestimating a treatment's effects.

Attrition bias

Attrition bias occurs when participants leave study groups in an unequal or different way that disrupts the balance between samples. Participants who drop out of a study might exhibit different psychosocial factors than those who complete the study, which can bias the study's results. Similarly, participants in a treatment study might leave a study due to declining health (due to treatment or disease progression), but those who completed the study faired better and may influence the apparent "success" of the treatment.

More example scenarios can be found at CatalogofBias.org.

Risk of bias

A study's design can create systemic or methodological errors in the results, causing under- or overestimation of an intervention's effect.

Bias can creep into research at any step of the process. It's not as simple as asking whether or not bias exists. You need to consider how well the researchers attempted to prevent bias.

 

Image from: Pannucci, C. & Wilkins, E.G. (2010). Identifying and avoiding bias in researchPlastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 126(2), 619-625.

How to Evaluate Websites

Sometimes you may need to use websites as sources. Potential uses for websites include:

  • Statistics - Census.gov, reports from government agencies & research organizations
  • Policies & guidelines - FDA, American Medical Association, EPA, CDC, etc.
  • Companies or groups referenced within a paper

Evaluating a website is similar to evaluating a journal article, but the information may not be as easily accessible and may require an extra critical eye.

Ask yourself ...

WHY was the page created? 

  • Inform - Laws, regulations, services (government); collections and services (library or non-profits); available courses, programs, services (university sites)
  • Entertain - Games, puzzles, pictures, books, magazines, gossip, fan sites
  • Share Information - Hobbies, fandom, DIY
  • Advertise/Sell - Products, services
  • Influence - Advocacy, religion, pro/con, politics, etc.
  • News
  • Personal - Blogs, hobby sites, etc.

Organization

A professionally designed website does not guarantee the accuracy of its information, but it generally indicates someone has put some effort into the content and its maintenance. A few things to ask yourself:

  • Is the content well-written: understandable, grammatically correct, and coherent?
  • Does the content contain working links to relevant and appropriate information?
  • Can you easily identify the author and when the content was written or updated?

Date

When was the page produced and/or last revised? Is the linked information also up-to-date? If it's not apparent when the information was posted or updated, it's best to move on.

Usefulness

Is the web page relevant to your current project? If it's useful, it will

  • support your argument
  • oppose your argument, or
  • give evidence (survey results, primary research results, case studies, etc.)

Very important: Can you clearly identify the author, and is he or she considered an authoritative source in this subject area?

Audience

To what type of reader is the web site directed? This will dictate the quality of the content. Is the content level appropriate for your needs?

Ask yourself, is the site for:

  • general readers
  • students (elementary, high school, undergraduate, graduate)
  • specialists or professionals
  • researchers or scholars?

WHO is behind the site?

Who is authoring and maintaining this website? How does this affect its purpose and content? Look for Mission Statements, About Us, and FAQs to learn more. If a site does not make it obvious who is behind it, move on to another source.

  • Government (.gov) sites have "official" information, laws, bills or resolutions, and can be considered a primary source
  • Education (.edu) sites serve multiple purposes: market & promote the institution, posting information for its students and faculty, and publish current research
    • Beware: Students often post papers for an online portfolio - do not use other students as sources!
  • Businesses/Companies (.com) promote goods, services, and rarely post negative information
  • Associations: Professional, Trade (address frequently includes .org) recruit & provide information to current members
  • News bureau: television, newspaper, radio (address frequently includes .com)

Bias

Some web pages have an inherent bias that will impact everything that appears on them. Is the author:

  • left/liberal?
  • right/conservative?
  • center/moderate?
  • a political action (PAC) group or assocation?
  • a business?
  • an advocate?

Another method of evaluating websites (and other sources) is the CRAAP test. This stands for CURRENCY, RELEVANCY, AUTHORITY, ACCURACY, and PURPOSE. It's simply a group of questions you should ask yourself when evaluating a resource.

Currency

  • When was it published or last updated?
  • If referencing other sources, when were those sources published?
  • Do you need current information, or are older sources acceptable?
  • Are links functional and up-to-date?

Relevance

  • What's the depth and breadth of the information? 
  • Could you find the same or better information from other sources?
  • Who is the intended audience? Consumers, students, researchers?
  • Does it provide the information you need?

Authority

  • Who is the author/creator/sponsor?
  • What credentials are listed and can you verify this information elsewhere? Are the credentials relevant to the topic?
  • What's the author or organization's reputation?
  • Is there contact information?
  • What does the domain reveal about the source? Example: .edu .com. .gov

Accuracy

  • Where does this information come from?
  • Are original sources listed? Do those sources come from traditional publications?
  • Can you verify information in independent sources?
  • Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
  • Does language or tone seem biased?

Purpose

  • Are possible biases clearly stated?
  • Is the purpose of the page stated? Is the purpose to inform, teach, entertain, sell, persuade?
  • Is advertising content vs. informational content clearly distinguishable? (Beware of "sponsored content" or "sponsored articles" on journalism sites like TheAtlantic.com)