When you’re looking for sources it pays to be choosy, because a bad source is death to a paper. No lie, when your instructor is reading your paper, half of their assessment as to how much effort you put into it is formed by examining your works cited page. A good paper is not the one for which there are the most sources. It’s the one with the best sources.
How do you find the best sources for your paper? Do you thumb through the back issues of Newsweek at your dentist’s office until you find some articles that look like what you’re writing about? Not so much. Do you run a Google search and click on the first three links? Not if you want an A. Do you go to the library, find the shelf with roughly the right material and start scanning titles? Well, that’s how we used to do it, but that was before databases put refined search capability at our fingertips.
Writing a good research paper starts with being a savvy searcher. Serendipitous discovery as a research process is overrated. The percentage of academics who “stumble” onto a great find is misrepresented in modern movies, where everyone seems to pick up the right book out of a pile just at the moment they needed it. Real academics don’t “stumble” into their best discoveries. We stumble over to our nearest librarian the moment we feel ourselves stumble at all.
I can’t give you a foolproof series of steps for finding the right source for your paper, but I can give you these tried and true guidelines:
First, look at the assignment to find out what kind of sources you should use.
There are different kinds of sources: Secondary sources are sources written by other people about your topic. Primary sources, however, are witnesses to history: artifacts, interviews you collect, materials you find in the world or in an archive. On your assignment sheet, your instructor will likely have explained what sources are to be used in your paper. Does your instructor want you to look for peer-reviewed academic articles, newspaper articles, or to draw from only the texts used in class? Do they want you to do primary research? If the assignment doesn’t specify what sources are acceptable, ask your instructor.
Second, know what you’re looking for before you search.
Every paper you write in college begins with you: your interests, your questions, your hunches. If you don’t have at least some sense of what your paper is about before you search, you’re not going to find answers in someone else’s book. Make a list of what you need to find out before you start searching, and you’ll maintain some sense of your own voice in the paper. Go out clueless, and you might wind up presenting your instructor with a disconnected pile of quotes.
Third, look in the right place.
You can’t find bread in a hardware store. And you won’t find academic journal articles in a library database that only covers newspapers. Make sure you’re searching in the right place for the source you need.
Fourth, the source has to answer your question.
This seems obvious, but it’s easily forgotten once you get into the details of writing the paper. Too often what’s available takes over. You forget your purpose. The source you collect must help you answer your research question. If it doesn’t, don’t include it. If your question is about why the campus dining hall went trayless, for example, you can’t find that out by asking students, even if students are standing all around you. They don’t know. Get an interview with an administrator in dining services.
Lastly, some sources are just bad.
Sure it depends on your purpose, but no one really wants to see a quotation from Newsweek in an academic paper, unless your paper is about the death of print magazines, citing Newsweek as an example. You need to go where the story is. The story is never in Newsweek.
If you remember nothing else after reading this post, please remember: The story is never in Newsweek.