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Types of Sources

Summary:

We live in an age overflowing with sources of information. With so many information sources at our fingertips, knowing where to start, sorting through it all and finding what we want can be overwhelming! This handout provides answers to the following research-related questions: Where do I begin? Where should I look for information? What types of sources are available?

This section lists the types of sources most frequently used in academic research and describes the sort of information that each commonly offers.

Print Sources

Books and Textbooks: Odds are that at least one book has been written about virtually any research topic you can imagine (and if not, your research could represent the first steps toward a best-selling publication that addresses the gap!). Because of the time it takes to publish a book, books usually contain more dated information than will be found in journals and newspapers. However, because they are usually much longer, they can often cover topics in greater depth than more up-to-date sources.

Newspapers: Newspapers contain very up-to-date information by covering the latest events and trends. Newspapers publish both factual information and opinion-based articles. However, due to journalistic standards of objectivity, news reporting will not always take a “big picture” approach or contain information about larger trends, instead opting to focus mainly on the facts relevant to the specifics of the story. This is exacerbated by the rapid publication cycles most newspapers undergo: new editions must come out frequently, so long, in-depth investigations tend to be rarer than simple fact-reporting pieces.

Academic and Trade Journals: Academic and trade journals contain the most up-to-date information and research in industry, business, and academia. Journal articles come in several forms, including literature reviews that overview current and past research, articles on theories and history, and articles on specific processes or research. While a well-regarded journal represents the cutting-edge knowledge of experts in a particular field, journal articles can often be difficult for non-experts to read, as they tend to incorporate lots of technical jargon and are not written to be engaging or entertaining.

Government Reports and Legal Documents: The government regularly releases information intended for internal and/or public use. These types of documents can be excellent sources of information due to their regularity, dependability, and thoroughness. An example of a government report would be any of the reports the U.S. Census Bureau publishes from census data. Note that most government reports and legal documents can now be accessed online.

Press Releases and Advertising: Companies and special interest groups produce texts to help persuade readers to act in some way or inform the public about some new development. While the information they provide can be accurate, approach them with caution, as these texts' publishers may have vested interests in highlighting particular facts or viewpoints.

Flyers, Pamphlets, Leaflets: While some flyers or pamphlets are created by reputable sources, because of the ease with which they can be created, many less-than-reputable sources also produce these. Pamphlets and leaflets can be useful for quick reference or very general information, but beware of pamphlets that spread propaganda or misleading information.

Digital and Electronic Sources

Multimedia: Printed material is certainly not the only option for finding research. You might also consider using sources such as radio and television broadcasts, interactive talks, and recorded public meetings. Though we often go online to find this sort of information today, libraries and archives offer a wealth of nondigitized media or media that is not available online. 

Websites: Most of the information on the Internet is distributed via websites. Websites vary widely in terms of the quality of information they offer. For more information, visit the OWL's page on evaluating digital sources.

Blogs and personal websites: Blogs and personal sites vary widely in their validity as sources for serious research. For example, many prestigious journalists and public figures may have blogs, which may be more credible than most amateur or personal blogs. Note, however, that there are very few standards for impartiality or accuracy when it comes to what can be published on personal sites.

Social media pages and message boards: These types of sources exist for all kinds of disciplines, both in and outside of the university. Some may be useful, depending on the topic you are studying, but, just like personal websites, the information found on social media or message boards is not always credible.