Finding Sources


Knowing how to find sources is essential to writing any research paper. Sifting through masses of information to locate useful sources can be overwhelming, but we’re going to offer an approach that can help you break down this process into manageable steps. This module will help you to identify what kinds of sources you need to look for, even before you head to the library or fire up your web browser.

In order to introduce the process of locating useful sources, we’re going to tell a story about asteroids:

Let’s pretend that you’re walking down the street and someone standing on the corner tells you that he has some important information for you. “An asteroid is going to hit the earth in three days,” he says. He hands you a flyer that says a number of prominent scientists have confirmed it.


Do you ignore him? Run for cover? Buy asteroid insurance?

You figure that before you make any decisions, you should probably do some research. After a basic internet search, however, you discover a lot of conflicting information, and you’re not sure whom to believe.

For example, the Wikipedia page on asteroids tells you what an asteroid is, but not whether one is going to hit in three days. You find a blog post from someone who warns of an asteroid strike in three years, not three days. Another website,, warns of a strike in twelve days and has a sale on a particular brand of bomb shelter. A blog post by someone claiming to be a “semi-professional scientist” refutes all claims about asteroid strikes. You find a few books about asteroid strikes that initially seem promising, but on closer inspection you realize these are fiction, and they are mostly about post-asteroid zombie attacks. This search has made you more confused than ever!

asteroid illustration_color

You realize you have to figure out who the foremost expert on asteroids is so that your information comes from an authoritative source. After limiting your search to news sites with recent articles on asteroids, you find an NYT profile of a prominent scientist who has published in academic journals on this topic. This means that the scientist not only has the degree she claims to have, but also that her scientific work is well respected among a community of people with similar qualifications.

So you go to your university library’s website, access an academic database like Web of Science, and search for that scientist’s name. Ten academic articles come up, two of which are about asteroid strikes. One is from 1972, and the other is from 2013. You download and read both of them. You go back to the flyer and realize that the flyer is citing a few facts taken out of context from the 1972 article. The 2013 article largely refutes them thanks to new data that the scientist has collected over the last 40 years.

Reading all of this helps you determine that the flyer is not a useful source with which to predict a future asteroid strike. You are safe!

This story illustrates that it’s important to bring an analytical approach to all sources you encounter.

In a college context, this analytical work extends to research projects: your professors expect you to sort through and identify relevant and reliable information and to support your own ideas with credible sources.

When you graduate, the critical thinking skills you learn will probably apply to your job as well. Throughout your career, you’re going to need to consult other people and their work, and it’s important to know where to go for that advice, whom to trust, and why.

This module has three sections.

How to decide what type(s) of sources you need based on the scope of your project.

How to find sources.

How to keep track of your sources as you work.

You’ll notice that this module presents the research process as a series of linear steps in which you figure out what kinds of sources you need, find them, keep track of them, and evaluate their credibility and usefulness. In reality, though, research is hardly ever linear. Instead, it’s recursive: this means it can repeat itself. You might cycle through these steps several times, or get to one step then realize you have to loop back to the beginning. That’s okay: research is often messy, full of both breakthroughs and false starts. The sources you find might change the nature of your research questions, which will lead you to more and different sources. You’re not doing anything wrong if you don’t progress neatly from step to step. In fact, it’s precisely because research can be so unpredictable that it’s important to keep careful track of sources as you go along.