There are many ways to categorize different types of information sources. We could focus on the format, like book, newspaper, photograph, or magazine. Another common way is to focus on three major types that are related to the audience, tone, scope, and purpose of a source. The three types of sources we'll focus on are popular, scholarly, and trade and professional. For some classes, we can use all three types of information. Others will require use to use a specific type.
When searching for sources we will encounter these three types of information. They will not always be clearly labeled, so it will take some extra work to consider what type of information we're looking at. Usually the more expert a source is, the more valuable and convincing it is as evidence. So we want to use the best evidence possible.
Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA)
|Who reads them?||General audience; all readers||Members of a profession/trade||Scholars, researchers, and students|
|Who writes them?||Reporters, usually not experts on the subject. Authors may not have special qualifications for writing the article; credentials are not usually provided||Members of a procession or trade, specialized journalists, or technical writers. Credentials are usually not provided||Scholars, researchers, and experts in the field of study. Author’s credentials in the field are almost always provided (e.g., institutional affiliation and degrees)|
|What do they look like?||Attractive appearance, colorful advertisements, shorter articles||Moderate number of advertisements targeted to the interest of the profession/trade members||Dense, text based pages
May contain complicated graphs or charts
Usually does not include color photographs
Very little advertising, if any
|What language do they use?||Written using everyday language for a general audience||Includes jargon and terminology that are commonly used in the profession/trade||Uses academic language with field specific language/jargon, complicated to read.|
|Do they have citations?||Very few citations, if any
No reference list/bibliography
|Very few citations, if any
Sometimes will include a reference list/bibliography with a few resources or suggestions for further reading
Sources are cited in a bibliography/reference list or as footnotes.
|How to use them?
|Popular sources are good for a broad overview of complex topics. They can be great starting places to get a sense of a topic, the sides of a debate, or latest news on a current social issue. We can also use them to pick up on keywords and search terms that we can use in search engines and research databases. We can also make note of experts, researchers, and recent studies that are discussed. These too can be found with more research.||Trade sources are perfect to staying up-to-date with practices in our professions / future professions. Trade publications capture voices we wouldn't otherwise find in other types of literature and are highly regarded by professionals, policy makers, and companies in the field.||
Scholarly sources are the best way to find out about the latest research in a field.
Some scholarly sources do their whole research as an extensive literature review of all the research on a narrow topic. These literature reviews are a great way to get an overview of the research, what's been done, where similarities have been found, differences, and what is still unknown and unanswered. These sources frequently have the terms 'literature review,' or 'meta-analysis,' or 'systematic review' in the title.
Pro Tip: Use those terms in your database search to find these sources.
We all use search engines, but do we really know how they work?
To find the best information, we can’t just use the first results in Google. In fact, researchers estimate that most information on the web isn’t available through a simple Google search.
Google search results aren’t organized by reliability or accuracy. A website near the top of the results list in Google might include reliable information, or it might be there because a lot of other websites link to it. Ranking websites by popularity is not an academic method of determining reliability, and popularity shouldn't be confused with accuracy when it comes to finding quality information.
The video below explains what we know about how the Google search works.
To learn Google search tips, to save you research time, visit the Search Techniques page.
We've all jumped into a search and found too much, not enough, or just strange results. One way to help solve this problem is to first think about your topic and the keywords that might be in the articles you want to find. A great way to do this is to create a concept map or keyword grid. To find out more information about keywords, visit the "Getting Started with Research" section of this guide.
When we search we often want to communicate with Google or databases as if they are humans, meaning that we type in our entire research question. This way of communicating is called natural language. And while people who create databases and search engines have become better at making algorithms that understand our natural language, it is not the way databases "talk".
OneSearch and most of our library databases have ways to refine our search called filters. Filters help us save time by removing results from our search that don't fit the assignment requirements.
Example: We have an assignment that asks us to find scholarly/peer-reviewed articles on our topic that were published within the last five years.
When we search in a database, like Research Library or Academic Search Complete, we have the option to select limiters like the type of results (scholarly/peer-reviewed), the date range (the last five years), and more! This can immediately remove thousands of sources from our search and save time!
If we are doing searches and the results pages are filled with irrelevant (off-topic) results, too many results, or very few results, we will need to make some changes to our search strategy.
When we get lots of irrelevant results we may need to adjust our search terms. Our terms may have multiple meanings in multiple contexts. If there isn't a more precise word, we can either include another term to add context, or use an advanced search feature to exclude the context we don't want.
Example: If we're looking for information on the technology company Apple, we could include a term like technology, computers, company, or iPhone to eliminate most information on the apples we eat.
It's also possible that we are looking in the wrong place. We should always ask ourselves, are we looking in the right kind of place for this information?
Example: If we're looking for health information in a business database, we're looking in the wrong place.
When we get millions of results, many of them are likely to be somewhat off topic from what we wanted. Add more search terms, and consider using some filters to narrow your results to a more manageable number.
When we only get a few results, we are probably either using too many search terms, or we are looking in the wrong place.
It's also possible that our terminology wrong for the context. Most scholarly articles are written with specialized, technical terminology and they may not even contain the common, everyday term that we used as a search term.
Example: The medical term for a heart attack is myocardial infarction. If we're searching in a medical database, we'll get the best results when we use the exact medical term.
When we're searching in a library database, a "just right" search will typically contain a few hundred results. When searching in tools like OneSearch or Google, since they contain a huge amount of sources, "just right" will typically be a few thousand results. The other sign of being on the right track is that the first 20 results contain many promising titles.
Once we find a few useful sources on our topic, we can find lot more by following links and citations to the sources that they use. We can also look up any experts, organizations, or companies that are mentioned. This also helps us get closer to the the original information. Which lets us see the context of the original information and we can judge for ourselves.
Following links and citations will show us older information, frequently we'll also want to find newer information. When starting from a scholarly source, we can use Google Scholar to find the new research that cites our starting research.
This video shows both technique to find both older and newer sources that are related to a source we already have.
Here's a worksheet that guides us through the steps of this process. We can make a copy of this and make it our own.