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Build Your Research Skills

To determine if a resource is scholarly or professional, look for most or all of the following criteria:
  • The author is a scholar, researcher or professional in the field; their expertise is provided and verifiable.
  • The writing style is scholarly, technical, or formal, using terminology that requires some familiarity with the subject or profession.
  • The intended audience is limited to scholars, professionals, and/or students in a particular field of study. 
  • The resource is published by a college, university, academic press, professional association, or commercial publisher specializing in scholarly or professional works.
  • The work undergoes a rigorous process to foster accuracy, reliability, and objectivity; and the methodology adheres to established standards, which are often discipline- or industry-specific. “Peer-reviewed” or “refereed” works are reviewed independently by other experts in the same field before publication approval.
  • The resource contributes new information or otherwise adds value to the field of study. Examples: reports on original research or experimentation; new theories, interpretations or criticism of existing ideas; reviews synthesizing multiple works or an area of study, often with implications for future research; and reviews, criticism, or commentary regarding other scholarly resources.
  • The work includes references to other scholarly and/or primary sources.
  • Complete source information such as the author (or editor), title, publication date and publisher is provided.

Primary sources are original documents, objects, or media created during the time of the event being researched, or by an individual(s) who directly experienced an event, made a discovery, or created a new work of art. They are raw materials with a direct relationship to whatever is being studied.

  • Examples: photographs, speeches, diaries, editorials, letters, interviews, historic artifacts, works of art, musical scores, performances, literary works, survey research, legal documents, proceedings, patents, video or audio recordings of events being studied, etc.

Secondary sources are a step removed from the original source. They may comment or build upon original primary sources.

  • Examples: second-hand reports on events, research, or works created by someone else at a different time or place; criticisms; reviews; interpretations; citations; etc.

Tertiary sources typically compile and condense a range of primary and/or secondary sources into an easily-digestible format.

  • Examples: encyclopedias, almanacs, timelines, bibliographies, directories, fact books, etc. (Note: Many of these are also considered secondary sources.)

Research Tip: Across disciplines, contexts, and perspectives, the definition of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources differ.  Some scholars consider encyclopedias secondary sources, while others consider them tertiary sources. In today’s environment of digitized content, most would contend an online image of a primary document or transcript is sufficient, while others might argue the original physical copy is essential for primary research. Like many areas of study, distinctions are fuzzy and subject to interpretation. When in doubt, clarify your instructor’s expectations.

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