Introduction When you are researching for an argumentative paper, you want to be sure that you have a variety of sources. In this way, you bring in information from many different authors, allowing for a more textured body of supporting evidence. The best arguments are made from varied sources that include both primary and secondary source documents. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming to search for a variety of sources, especially when you are new to researching in the first place. However, there are methods you can use that will enable you to “mine” the sources you find for more information.
Primary Sources and Secondary Sources There are two main kinds of sources; regardless of whether they are print published or electronically published, the two types of sources are primary sources and secondary sources. You may already be familiar with the differences between primary and secondary sources, but let’s revisit this knowledge. Depending upon the type of argument you want to make and the topic you choose to write about, you will want to have a variety of primary sources and secondary sources.
Primary Sources A primary source is a document or physical object that was created during a particular period of time and provides insight to the time period. A primary source is a direct result of an event or period. The following examples are representative of primary sources:
Original documents from the time period: Firsthand news reports, nonfiction books and manuscripts, autobiographies, letters, diaries, memoirs, speech/oratory transcriptions, film footage, charters, correspondence, interviews (about a current event), pamphlets, personal narratives, research data and surveys, and official records of any kind
Creative works (both textual and physical): Fiction works; plays, movies, and other dramatic works; music, both recorded or in sheet music form; poetry; photography; and artwork
Artifacts: Everyday items produced during a particular time period—automobiles, architecture, fashion clothing, furniture styles, and kitchen items
Secondary Sources A secondary source examines, interprets, and analyzes a primary source. Examples include both public and business writing and academic writing. In this way, a secondary source is removed from the event or time period as the examination of the primary source takes place after the initial event or time period. Let’s look at some examples of secondary sources:
Public and business writing: Magazine or news outlet articles, history of something, critiques, commentaries, business reports, annual business plans
Academic writing: Textbooks, reviews, essays, academic journal articles, lab reports, history of something, critiques and commentaries, scholarly books
Tertiary Sources While primary and secondary sources are considered the two basic types of sources, there is an additional type of source material with which you should be familiar: the tertiary source. A tertiary source is one that provides an overview or summary of a topic. It is important to note that, unlike a secondary source, tertiary sources do not include examinations, interpretations, or analysis. A tertiary source may contain primary and secondary source materials in the text as cited material; in this way, a tertiary source may act as reference material. Further, a tertiary source may even be a collection of primary and/or secondary sources.
Informational: Encyclopedias, abstracts, textbooks, almanacs, Wikipedia articles (see the information below about Wikipedia)
Collections: Directories, databases of any kind, catalogues, bibliographies, discographies
Print Publishing vs. Electronic Publishing Electronic publishing has come a long way since the advent of the Internet. Sometimes referred to as “digital publishing,” electronic publishing is now easier than ever, allowing people to post their thoughts, feelings, and concerns on websites. Wikipedia is often seen as one of the greatest successes in electronic publishing because of its wide use. However, even though millions of people across the globe use it each day, Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source. Why is that? Wikipedia has user-created content, meaning that the articles that you read on the website are written by people who may or may not have traditional expertise in that particular area. As a result, the information may not be entirely accurate or properly researched. This reason alone places Wikipedia in an unreliable category. Many times, professors will tell you that Wikipedia is a good place to begin your research because you may be able to gain basic information. However, the real research begins when you seek out specific information from credible experts.
Today, many print publishers also make their materials available online for electronic reading. With the rise of e-readers, the amount of print publishing has diminished, and many publishers have switched to a predominately electronic publishing business. As such, this is a great time to be a student and a researcher as materials are available sooner and in a wider variety than ever before. You just have to be careful about the sources upon which you rely.
Mining Your Sources for Threads of Information In the previous section, we discussed Wikipedia and how this website is not considered a reliable source. However, as mentioned above, Wikipedia can be a place to begin research. What does that mean? Let’s discuss.
What confuses students the most about a site like Wikipedia is that most Wikipedia articles have citations at the end of the page. These articles use a system of hypertext numbers to indicate the sources used. Even so, Wikipedia articles are not considered reliable because of the way that users who may or may not be experts create their content. So how might Wikipedia be a place to begin research? The answer lies not in the Wikipedia article, but in the references list. You can seek out the sources that are listed under the references for a particular article. In this way, you are tracking down the original primary and secondary sources used to create the article.
Sometimes referred to as “mining the references,” this same method is used throughout the academic world. Mining is when you read an article that may or may not be relevant to your topic. In reading the article, you discover that there is a source within the article that seems to be more applicable to your topic. By looking at the first article’s references page, you can locate the source being cited, look it up for yourself, and read the article in its original format.
Let’s look at the case of a journal article as an example. A journal article can take up to two years to publish because it goes through a process of being double-blind peer reviewed, edited a number of times by the author and the editor of the journal, reviewed, and again examined before publication. This is two years (sometimes longer) that is added to the time it took the academic to perform the experiment, analysis, or other form of academic work and to write up the findings in a coherent and discipline-conforming article. As you can see, the process is extensive. This is one of the reasons that a journal article is considered reliable.
However, there is a larger point here: The person who wrote the article spent at least a year, if not more, studying the topic at hand. In doing so, it is very likely that the author read as much as possible on the subject, gathered a library of materials to assist in writing the article, and discussed the findings with a number of other experts who suggested sources. In other words, the journal article contains a wealth of knowledge beyond just the content of the argument. The journal article likely contains an extensive review of materials that you can use for your own project.
When academics do research, they do it to contribute to a field. They realize (and hope) that someone will come along and use the extensive work they have done to further his or her own project in some way. Therefore, using the work that others have done is actually one of the more participatory activities in academics. Further, perhaps most importantly, you do not have time to become an expert on the topic of your choice, so it only makes sense that you would seek out the treasure trove of sources gathered by your authors. No doubt, this will help you find sources that you would have never discovered on your own and will lead you to a variety of source materials. Moreover, such a method can help you to discover aspects of the topic that you never knew existed, leading you to a new way to see the topic, your approach, and your argument.
Check for Understanding
(Answer Key is below Review)
True/False: When writing a research paper, you want to include sources that all come from the same author or source type.
True/False: An example of a primary source is an encyclopedia.
True/False: An academic journal article is an example of a secondary source.
True/False: A photograph is an example of a primary source.
When you are researching for an argumentative paper, you want to be sure that you have a variety of sources.
A primary source is a document or physical object that was created during a particular period of time and provides insight to the time period. A primary source is a direct result of an event or period.
A secondary source examines, interprets, and analyzes a primary source. In this way, a secondary source is removed from the event or time period as the examination of the primary source takes place after the initial event or time period.
A tertiary source is one that provides an overview or summary of a topic. It is important to note that, unlike a secondary source, tertiary sources do not include examinations, interpretations, or analysis.
“Mining the references” is a method of using the references list of your collected sources to locate additional materials.
False: When you are researching for an argumentative paper, you want to be sure that you have a variety of sources.
False: An encyclopedia is an example of a tertiary source because it provides an overview or summary of the topic.
True: A secondary source examines, interprets, and analyzes a primary source.
True: A primary source is a document or physical object that was created during a particular period of time and provides insight to the time period.