Finding Useful Sources

Once you know what types of sources you need, you’re ready to find sources. But not just any sources: you’ll want to find the sources that are most useful for your project.

Finding useful sources often requires you to do multiple online searches, reject some less useful sources, and use some sources to find more sources. This process can seem messy, but it’s what all successful researchers do. It’s what allows you to produce strong scholarly work that builds effectively from the work of others.

This process may sound intimidating, but remember that you don’t have to read a source carefully in order to know whether it’s useful. Instead, you can think strategically about how it relates to the scope of your project. (For more on reading strategically, see Using Sources to Construct Arguments.)


Choosing where to look for sources is the most important way to determine whether you’re going to find useful sources for your project. Always think about what types of sources you need, and search in the places that are likely to have them.

Because each research paper is different and technologies change all the time, we’re not going to get into the nitty-gritty details of all the places you can look for sources. There are a few basic places, however:

  • The general Internet, where you can find almost anything, and from which you can narrow your search
  • Specialized databases, which will yield specialized information
  • Your university’s library system, which should provide access to scholarly materials and links to specialized databases

Many professional scholars start their research with a basic Internet search. But–crucially– that doesn’t mean they indiscriminately read and use the sources that pop up from that search. Here are some guidelines you should follow to make your Internet search most effective:

Always, always, always bring your own analytical savvy to an Internet search.

When evaluating websites, remember to check for things like domain names, author’s credentials, organization title, etc. You want to know exactly why a source was produced, by whom, and whether the author has the authority to make the claims he or she makes. If you cannot determine these factors, the source is probably not useful for you.

To determine whether a source is useful to you, ask:

  • Is this within the scope of my project?
  • Is this author qualified to write about this topic given the scope of my project?
    • For example, a blog post could be a great source if you want to analyze how ordinary people write about a certain issue online. In that case, the author is certainly qualified to write about the topic. But if you need an expert who has authority over a topic, you should probably not cite a blog post–even if it’s by a self-proclaimed expert. Better to choose an academic article, since those have the most scholarly authority.

If you determine that a source is useful and you can access the entire source online, go for it! Just remember to cite carefully. If not, you can always go to your university’s library system and find it there.

Refine search terms if necessary

If you keep coming up with sources that aren’t useful, or types of sources that don’t fall within the scope of your project, you might need to refine your search terms. This is where keywords come in handy.