Skip to Main Content

Research Fundamentals: Find Sources

What Is a "Good" Source?

Don't think of information sources as "good" or "bad" - instead, consider whether they are appropriate for your research needs.

Wikipedia, for example, might not be appropriate for your research project on climate change, but if you're researching crowd-sourced reference sites, then Wikipedia will be an indispensable source of information for you.

Primary sources are firsthand or eyewitness accounts. They present the actual evidence of an event without any analysis or interpretation. Primary sources include diaries, letters, legal or court documents, laws, speeches, statistics, journals, original research documents, and the like.

Secondary sources analyze, interpret, retell, explain, or critique primary sources.

Tertiary sources index, organize, and compile other sources and are generally not referenced in academic research. This category includes encyclopedias, dictionaries, and textbooks.

Scholarly sources, such as journals, are written by the experts in the subject matter. They are often written for use by other scholars, researchers, or serious students of the subject. They often use language that is specific to that discipline. They usually include in-text citations or footnotes and a works cited or bibliography. They are often peer-reviewed, meaning the article has been anonymously reviewed by a panel of experts in the topic before it has been accepted for publication. They are usually published by a professional organization, research center, or scholarly press.

Popular sources, including magazines and news sources) are written for a more general audience, not necessarily experts in the topic. They are often written by journalists or others who are not professionals in the field. They are written in easy to understand language; they do not use technical jargon. Although they may have footnotes and/or citations, they are usually not as extensive. There may be little or no editorial review.

Professional/Trade sources are published for practitioners in specific fields. Generally, both the audience and the authors of trade publications are practitioners in the selected field.

Popular and trade publications are not better or worse than scholarly publications - each source must be judged individually and within the context of the information need.

Print refers to materials that have been produced in a hard copy. Examples include books, magazines, journals, and newspapers.

Electronic sources (or e-resources) are materials that are available in a digital format and may be accessed electronically. Examples include e-books, online journals, articles from electronic databases, PDF documents, and web pages.

Multimedia sources refer to images, audio, and video. These sources may be physical copies (CDs, DVDs, etc.) or electronic (streaming media, MP3 files, online videos, etc.).

Types of Information Sources

Information sources are often classified as physical (print, analog) versus online (electronic, digital) text versus audio/video and book versus journal.

Here are some common information source types with descriptions of how current their information usually is, what kind of information is contained in them, and where to find them.

Journal Articles

Screenshot of the front page of an article in the European Journal of Political Research.

  • Currency: Current within a few months to a few years of publication. Look at the list of references used. What is the most recent date you can find? That should tell you when they stopped researching and started writing. But bear in mind that experimental/observational data they gathered may be a year or two older than that.
  • Type of Information: Most recent research within the subject of the journal. Scholarly journal articles are important in all academic subject areas, but especially in the sciences, where most researchers do not write books.
  • Where to Find: Print journals are delivered to subscribers and libraries. Some journals are Open Access and make all their content online for free. Some journals allow authors to keep a copy of their articles online in a repository and you can usually find these through Google Scholar. Libraries subscribe to article databases. Those subscriptions make millions of articles available to users at those institutions.

Magazine Articles

Screenshot of the front page of an article in Health Magazine.

  • Currency: News magazine articles should be current within a few days to a few months of publication. But many magazine articles are based on scholarly articles, so their information is not as new.
  • Type of Information: Current events and editorials (news magazines). Non-scholarly articles about topics of interest within the subject of the magazine.
  • Where to Find: Print magazines are delivered to homes and libraries. Some magazines have an online presence, but access to older articles may require a subscription. Some library databases have full-text articles from magazines.

Newspaper Articles

 Screenshot of an article in the newspaper Austin American Statesman.

  • Currency: Current within a few minutes to a day of publication. Corrections made after the fact can change content later.
  • Type of Information: Current events and editorials.
  • Where to Find: Print newspapers are delivered to homes and libraries. Many newspapers have an online presence but access to older articles may require a subscription. Libraries can subscribe to newspaper databases.

Monographs (a.k.a. Scholarly Books)

Screenshot of part of a page of a monograph (scholarly book.)

  • Currency: Information may be two or three years old. Just like with journals, look for the most recent date in the bibliography, and that should tell you around when the author(s) were researching and writing. Bear in mind that experimental/observational data the author(s) gathered may be a year or two older than that.
  • Type of Information: Scholarly research on a topic. Not as recent as a journal article, but may address a whole subject rather than just a piece of it. Monographs are very important in the humanities.
  • Where to Find: Monographs are primarily available through academic libraries. Some are in print, some are e-books. These e-books are not available to consumers but are generally meant to be read via a web browser or downloaded as a PDF. 

Nonfiction Books

Screenshot of a page of a non-scholarly nonfiction book.

  • Currency: Varies widely. Books on hot topics may be published within a few weeks but, as a result, they may contain errors. Other books take two or more years to get to print, and the research may be even older.
  • Type of Information: Non-scholarly information and opinion. 
  • Where to Find: Nonfiction books are found in bookstores and mainly public libraries. e-book versions may be available for consumers via Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc. Nonfiction books on academically relevant topics that are of reasonably high quality are also collected by academic libraries. Some of them may be available through academic libraries in formats that are read in web browsers or downloaded as PDF.

Reference Resources

Screenshot of a page of a manual, which is a type of reference book.

  • Currency: Print reference resources often have annual updates, so the information in them should be only about a year old. Online reference resources may be updated continuously. Many statistical resources have older data because it takes a long time to organize it all. Historical resources summarize and synthesize established knowledge, rather than keeping up with the newest findings. The important thing is that reference resources usually tell you how old their information is. 
  • Type of Information: Summary and synthesis of what is known about a topic. Materials to be referred to; for example, facts and figures, dates, names, measurements, statistics, quotations, instructions, equations, formulae, definitions, explanations, charts, graphs, diagrams, maps. 
  • Where to Find: Traditionally, reference resources are available as books or series of books. They can be purchased by consumers but are often far too expensive. They can be found in the reference sections of public and academic libraries. Not all print reference sources are books; for example, there are also maps. More and more reference resources are available in online format, and as they go online, they become less and less linear, taking advantage of the ability to link and include multimedia. Online reference resources are available through specialized library databases, and there are also many of them on the web. Some are free and some require an individual subscription.


 Screenshot of a page of a textbook.

  • Currency: Varies widely. Some textbook editors publish a new edition every year, and their information should be current within a year or two of the edition's publication date. Other textbooks in less time-sensitive disciplines may contain information that is more historical in nature.
  • Type of Information: Information on a topic arranged in such a way that a beginner can acquire knowledge about that topic systematically. Textbooks are meant to be used as part of taking a course but are usually written so that they are complete and understandable on their own. Textbooks may have supplemental materials like questions to guide your reading or self-quizzes as well as accompanying multimedia material. Some e-textbooks come with fully integrated multimedia. 
  • Where to Find: In libraries that have a physical location and physical collection, some textbooks may be in the stacks or held on reserve for short-term loan. Most textbook publishers do not make textbooks available as e-books for libraries. Instead, textbooks, whether print or e-book, must be purchased by the individual student. Some textbooks may also be rented for the duration of the course.

Gray Literature

A scann of the cover of Soren Kierkegaard's university thesis, which is an example of gray literature.Gray literature is a huge category that encompasses a wide variety of documents that have not been published in the traditional sense. Gray literature includes:

  • Unpublished conference papers
  • Unpublished theses and dissertations
  • Presentations
  • Working papers
  • Notes and logs kept by researchers
  • Academic courseware, professors' teaching notes, students' lecture notes
  • Company annual reports
  • Project and study reports
  • Institutional reports
  • Technical reports
  • Reports put out by government agencies
  • Data and statistics
  • Unpublished letters and manuscripts
  • Patents, technical standards
  • Newsletters, product catalogs, and certain other types of ephemera with a strong informational value
  • Preprints of articles
  • And much more!

Certain kinds of gray literature can be found in databases. Others are best found by searching the web. 

Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain the author or organization responsible for the information, which can make gray literature may be difficult to cite.

What about video? What about the Web? Neither is a source type; video is a format, and the Web is a delivery method. You can find a video format textbook. You can find a scholarly article on the web. It does not necessarily change what kind of information is contained in it, who is responsible for that information, what kind of quality control is behind it, or how current that information is.

Material on this page is adapted from the Research Skills Tutorial by the Librarians at Empire State College has been made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

  • URL:
  • Last Updated: Jan 12, 2024 10:26 AM
  • Print Page