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Starting Your Research Paper: What Sources to Use?

No matter what your subject area, you'll probably have to write research papers. This guide can help.

Information Breakdown

Here's a breakdown of commonly used resources and how they may be of use to you:

Books      Books offer an in-depth look at a topic providing detailed analysis and historical context. However, they are not a good place to find the latest trends or research on a subject. Books take years to research, write, and publish.
     
Reference Books   Reference books consist of compiled information. They tend to be things like encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, etc. Reference books are usually good for quickly finding information about topics but they don't go as in-depth as "regular" books, nor do they present opinions or detailed experiments.
     
Journals   Journal articles also give an in-depth look at a topic; however, because they are so much shorter than books, they can't really provided the detail or historical context that books do. The biggest advantage to journal articles is their timeliness. Journals provide the very latest information, sometimes years before books.
     
Newspapers   Newspapers are published daily and provide basic information, with no original research or historical context. While not scholarly, they can serve as a primary source, featuring interviews and letters. Newspapers can provide information about an event within days or less of the event happening.
     
Websites   Websites are the quickest way to find information.  However a great deal of information on the Web is not reliable.  You must learn how to evaluate websites and tell the good from the bad. .
     
Microfilm   Microfilm are small plastic sheets or rolls that have pages of information shrunk down to a very small size.; You will need a special machine to read and print off the document. Microforms are best for historical research (genealogy, old newspapers, census, etc).

Websites vs. Databases

People sometimes think that databases and websites are the same thing.  That's not the case.

A website is a page on the Internet.  Anyone can make a website and the information can be pretty much anything, from entertainment to educational to questionable.  Websites are very rarely fact-checked and often contain a lot of misinformation.   

A database is a curated collection of material located online that is usually searchable in some format.  Experts or professionals pick and maintain the information that goes into the database.  Usually, the library has to pay to have access to the information.  Items in a database are considered legit sources of information.

The big difference:

Databases contain the same information that can be found in books and journals, just in a different format.  Databases will always give you the complete citation -- i.e. journal name, publication date, page numbers, etc.  Websites don't always cite the sources for their information. If you use the citation in a database to look in the physical journal on the shelf, the articles will be the exact same.  Many times, the only way the library has access to a particular journal is through a database.