Research Essays: Evaluating Online Sources for Academic Papers

Jerz > Writing > Academic

As anyone who’s ever put off a term paper will tell you, good research takes time.  If you are writing an academic paper, start in a library database, looking for peer-reviewed academic sources. It is a risky temptation to start with Google instead.

23 Oct, 2001 — first drafted
13 Jan 2012 — updated

Start With Good Academic Sources

A reference librarian is specially trained to help patrons find the best sources. An Internet search engine, on the other hand, will show you plenty of sources that will waste your time.

 An Internet Search Engine Will Show You…

  • newspaper or magazine articles (written by professional writers who are not experts in the subject matter, such as brain surgery or international politics),
  • commercial or activist web pages (written by people who are trying to sell you a thing or an idea, and have no interest in giving you a balaced and accurate overview of a complex issue),
  • instructional web pages (such as this one) or student projects (neither of which have been approved by the peer review process)
  • spoof web pages that are posted by pranksters; or creative works that imitate scholarly websites
  • some perfectly acceptable scholarly sources (though most will be locked behind paywalls; your library pays for access to these materials, so you won’t have to).

Don’t Trust Everything You Read Online!

See the creative hoax “History of a Victorian Era Robot,” which looks more professional than my own page on “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” My page states (correctly) that the word “robot” didn’t even exist until decades after the Victorian era ended. The page about the victorian robot is a wonderful work of creative storytelling, supplying a backstory for a comic book series, but it has been used by students who mistake it for fact.

See also this article on prankster Joey Skaggs, an artist who makes a career out of tricking gullible journalists.

A Free Search Engine Won’t Emphasize…

  • meticulously-researched articles,
  • written by full-time researchers (who spend several months on each article, while a journalist may have to write several different stories each day),
  • screened by an academic journal’s panel of experts, and
  • published as a service to the academic community.

Having said that, scholar.google.com is a specialty page that gives prominence to resources that look like academic articles. (The site is not perfect — some projects that students wrote for my undergraduate classes get high prominence in scholar.google.com, but that doesn’t mean they are peer-reviewed academic sources.)

Finding Academic Articles

The best place to start is by talking to the human being working the reference desk at your local library. If it’s currently two AM and your paper is due tomorrow, you may still be able to find some sources online, but you have to start in a library database, not a commercial one like Google or FindArticles.com.

See:

Beginning Your Research

Find a recent academic article that seems at least somewhat related to your topic. For example, if you want to write about pioneer women of Wisconsin, you might find a review of a recent scholarly book on the pioneer tradition of America

  • Plunder the “Works Cited” page. Even if the article itself is of little use to you, it may point you towards books or other articles that will be more valuable. (If there is no list of works cited, then you aren’t reading an academic source.)
  • Scan books on related topics. You will probably not find a whole book that examines the specific set of questions I am asking here. You may have to look at chapter or sections of different books, and piece together your own argument.
  • Walk to that section of the library that has books on your topic, and look on the shelf for similar books. books. Open each book up and scan the table of contentsat first; if you’re looking for something in particular, scan the index. If a book looks promising, set it aside; otherwise, put it back and keep looking

The Value of Scholarly Sources

Anything that takes time is valuable to someone.  And things that are valuable generally cost money; that’s why you won’t usually find the best articles through free search engines.  Does this mean you will have to pay to find good sources?  Not directly… your university or public library probably subscribes to dozens or hundreds of databases, all of which are free to their patrons.  And a growing number of journals publish their full contents online, in order to reach a wider audience. But a site like www.findarticles.com will emphasize the sites that want to sell their content to you.

Nearly any library database will include some way for you to limit your searches to “peer-reviewed,” “scholarly” or “juried” sources. But some periodicals include editorials, letters to the editor, and opinion columns; further, some periodicals that identify themselves as peer-reviewed are not necessarily scholarly.

For instance, a search for “Scholarly (Peer Reviewed” Journals” in the “Academic Search Elite” regularly turns up articles from a periodical titled, The Humanist: A Magazine of Critical Inquiry and Social Concern.  The word “magazine” in the title should be enough to make a researcher suspicious.  Further, the authors of these articles write like magazine authors — they don’t fully cite their sources (giving the page number where they got each fact; instead the author will call up an expert on the phone and print what he or she says), and magazine articles don’t include a scholarly reference list.

The authors of aritcles in The Humanst do not appear to be scholars, but rather political activists.  There is of course nothing wrong with referring to a political opinion in an academic paper, but on the website for The Humanist you will find the following statements: “The Humanist is a non-profit magazine of opinion. The Humanist has a distinctive slant and therefore does not publish all viewpoints” (“Submission Guidelines for The Humanist“).  Student researchers who do not distinguish between opinion and fact in their sources will probably have a hard time separating them in their own writing, so I do not recommend The Humanist as a source of complete, unbiased information for use in freshman research papers.

Note: It’s perfectly permissible for an academic paper to cite non-scholarly sources.  For instance, if you wanted to argue that Selena Gomez is a commercial product designed to appeal to the anxieties of preteen girls, you would probably be expected to quote song lyrics, analyze a brief transcript from a chat room, and refer to a news report that described a recent Gomez project.  But such a paper wouldn’t be a researched academic essay, unless it was also grounded in recent research on such subjects as mass marketing, child psychology, popular culture, and gender studies.

This checklist will help you determine whether a source you find online is scholarly.  This checklist won’t cover every possible situation, but it will offer some clear criteria that you can use to judge your sources for yourself.

Did you find the source by instructing alibrary database to display only results from “peer reviewed” publications?

You may very well find scholarly sources through an ordinary web search engine (such as Google or Yahoo!), but your chances are much better if you use one of the databases provided by a library.

  • A peer-reviewed journal may publish a letter to the editor, an opinion column, or a short story.
  • Even if you tick the right box on the database, you still have to look critically at what the database serves up. (See the next item.)
Does the article conclude with a bibliography?

If your source documents its claims, it is probably a scholarly document.

  • If your online source ends with a statement like, “This document was compiled from the following resources,” then it’s not a good academic source.  You should go directly to the sources that the compiler used.
  • A list of “recommended links” or suggested titles for “further reading” is not enough.  (Such a list is a dead give-away that you’re not looking at a scholarly source.)

Note: Even if a source does document its claims, it may not be a credible, peer-reviewed article. If you found your source through a web search engine, there’s a good chance that you found a student paper.

Telltale signs of a student paper:

  • Posted on a “.edu” website, but author’s title is omitted (nothing identifying the author as an assistant professor, Ph.D. candidate, etc.).
  • URL includes a course number or title.
  • No outbound or navigation links on the page (you may have to hack the URL looking for clues).
  • Spelling mistakes, unsupported claims, or wordy introductions.
  • Garish colors; page titles such as “My Paper” or “New Page 1″
Does the source specify the authorpublisher, and date?

A peer-reviewed academic source will always include this information. If you can’t find all three, then you aren’t looking at a good academic source.Author: Academic researchers always want credit for their work. They won’t give away academic information without putting their name on it.  The author’s name, position, and university affiliation will be clearly listed.  (Sometimes groups of scholars will publish policy or opinion statements under the name of an organization, but if your source is an academic article, every author will be listed. If the author is identified as a “freelance writer,” “staff reporter” or “contributor,” then the source is probably not a scholarly essay.)Publisher: If your source is posted on the author’s own website, or if an article about a particular organization is hosted on that organization’s website, it’s almost certainly nota peer-reviewed academic article.  (Some authors will repost versions of articles they’ve published elsewhere, but if the publisher is credible, the author will certainly identify the original source prominently.)Date: The date is extremely important to researchers who wish to evaluate the content of a particular source.  For example, an article about airline security written before Sept. 11, 2001 will be evaluated very differently than an article written shortly afterwards. If you can’t find a date, you can’t tell how relevant the information is.
Does the author support his or her argument by citing academic articles?

The author of an academic article will almost always position his or her document against recent related academic publications.  After the initial thesis paragraph, look for a short section that refers to a large number of scholarly sources.

While the accumulation of cookie crumbs in typewriter keyboards has long been recognized as a factor affecting worker productivity (Smith; Jones; Able and Baker), few have gone as far as Charles’s statement that workers who eat lunch at their desks are 10% more likely to cause “egregious damage” to their workstations (134).

If your source writes “I hate cooke crumbs” or claims that “recent studies have shown” or “some people say” something about crumbs (without citing specific academic publications), then it is probably not reliable academic source.

Does the source have along, dry title?

“Incidental Memory and Navigation in Panoramic Virtual Reality for Electronic Commerce”
This is perhaps a matter of opinion, but academic articles like the one above are typically long, dry, and very specific.
“A World Without Landmines”
“Republicans with Heart Give Democrats Hope”
Magazines and newspaper articles typically have short, snappy titles. If you are writing a current events paper, or you need recent statistics, it may be defensible to cite a news article published within the last few months. (Ask your instructor about his or her willingness to let you use recent journalism.)
Case Study: 9/11/2001 Terror Attacks
In the fall of 2001, many of my students (in centrall Wisconsin) wanted to write about the shocking current events — the infamous attacks. A library search turned up plenty of references to the news event, but they were all news articles or opinion pieces; no scholarly essays had been written yet.Nevertheless, there was existing scholarship that, combined with current event news articles, supported academic research. For instance,

  • a recent book about the World Trade Center (Technology & Culture, January 2001)
  • a critique of the architectural style of the designer of the WTC (Amerasia Journal 2000/2001)
  • an article called “Mental Health Response to the [1993] World Trade Center Bombing” (Journal of Mental Health Counseling, July 1995).

The afternoon of Sept 11, 2011, I collected as many literary and cultural references to the World Trade Center as I could. None of them directly referred to the day’s event, but taken together, they did capture what a wide range of writers had already decided the WTC meant to New Yorkers, and to America.

Case Study: Emerging Technology or Trends
If you wanted to write a paper on how the latest gadget or cultural fadis affecting today’s culture, you could look up studies of how similar trends were received.While there is now plenty of scholarship on teens an texting, that scholarship builds on previous studies of teens and telephones, teens and computers, and teens and writing.Let’s imagine that a new trend of teens wearing contact lenses with computer displays, that lets them watch videos or surf web pages with their eyes closed. If this technology is brand new, there won’t be any academic articles on it, but there will be plenty of articles about older technology that raised similar concerns(teens and smartphones, teens and YouTube, teens and internet abuse, etc.).You might have more direct experience with this new technology than anybody who’s written about it yet, so you could draw on the existing scholarship, current news coverage, and your own experience with contact-lens computer displays, in order to illustrate the specific ways in which your own take on the topic covers new ground that has not already been covered before in academic sources.

Academic Research on Current Events

Finding academic articles devoted to emerging issues or cutting-edge technology may be difficult.  While you may find dozens of newspaper reports and a good handful of magazine articles, you may not be able to find a peer-reviewed academic article devoted to your topic.

Find academic articles on related or historical topics, and fill in the gaps by citing the non-scholarly sources.

You might find it hard to locate academic sources that examine current events, or the latest developments in computer technology or Internet culture.  If so, you can quote from older studies of related topics, and connect the dots. Point out where the conclusions of those earlier researchers did or did not predict the issues that emerge when you examine the new technology.

The the Internet will probably serve up dozens or hundreds of news reports, magazine articles, and corporate public relations materials surrounding a current event or an emerging technology.  But everything that happens in the world is the result of a complex network of causes and effects.  We can learn quite a bit about the current war in Afghanistan by examining scholarly analyses of the years that the Soviet Union spent fighting (and ultimately losing) under very similar conditions.

While you might never find a whole article devoted to the specific issue you wish to cover, you can still find peer-reviewed academic sources that will give you a solid historical, cultural, scientific, or global background.

  • Where else in the world, and when else in history, has a similar thing happened before?
  • How does the situation you wish to examine compare to those other instances?

If you want to write on a current event or the latest technology, you will likely find that Google will point you to lots of social media posts, blog entries, and news articles; however, when you go to look up the same event in a database of scholarly database, if you find anything at all, it will seem out of date and possibly irrelevant.

When Google shows you a list of dozens or hundreds of short, easy-to-read articles on your topic, why does your instructor want you to focus instead on the dry and out-of-date scholarly work?

When you start any subject, you have to do a lot of memorizing. This bone has this name, this author wrote this poem, this composer lived in this country.

Academic research, at the higher levels, is not about looking up the right answer as quickly as possible. Instead, scholarship — including your own scholarly work — is about generating brand new knowledge. And doing that kind of work takes time.

Because good scholarship takes time, the most thoughtful, most insightful, most comprehensive reactions to any current event are rarely the first ones published. Looking up your topic in a library database (making sure you tick the box to limit your searches to peer-reviewed journals) will help you scour a body of work that experts have already decided is among the most rigorous available.

For instance, when I first drafted this page, a few weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, bloggers and journalists were writing opinions and analyses. Some of what appeared at that early stage was useful and informative, and some of it was completely wrong (including fears that more jetliner attacks would cause further deaths, or that viruses or radiation bombs would be released in the cities) — but we didn’t know that at the time. Those early emotional and speculative responses did not rely on verifiable measurement or the ability to see patterns that only emerged over time. Those early responses — readily available through Google — weren’t academic scholarship.

A scholarly book may take a year or two to write, and another three months to be edited, printed, and distributed to booksellers.

Articles have a faster cycle; many academic journals publish issues two or three times per year, but the articles in each issue probably took their authors a year or more to take their idea from conception to publication.

Does this mean current events are off-limits as the topics of student papers? Far from it. For current events, journalism is often the only source of information, so it’s perfectly acceptable to use it. But there are different levels of journalism.

  • An article published in PC Gamer is not as credible as an article published in The Washington Post.
  • An TV interview with a senator is not as credible as a direct quotation from a bill the senator is trying to pass.
  • A passage quoted in a review of a book is not as credible as the same passage quoted from the book itself.

Using Your Materials

Avoid summary.  If you don’t have a clear thesis, you will be tempted to fill up lines, either by making random observations or by quoting long passages from your source texts.

Are you falling into a pattern of spending a paragraph on each outside source, and then starting a new paragraph to introduce a new source?  If so, you are probably summarizing other arguments, instead of developing your own. (Integrate brief quotations in academic papers.)

Documenting Evidence

Back up your claims by quoting reputable sources.

If you write, “Recent research shows that…” or “Many authors believe…”, you are making a claim. You will have to back it up with authoritative evidence. This means that the body of your paper must include references to the specific page numbers where you got your outside information. (If your document doesn’t have page numbers, you can give a section title or you can count the number of paragraphs.)

Avoid using words like “always” or “never,” since all it takes is a single example to the contrary to disprove your claim. Likewise, be careful with words of causation and proof.

For example, consider the claim that “television causes violence in kids.”

  • The evidence might be that kids who commit crimes typically watch more television than kids who don’t.
  • But maybe the reason kids watch more television is that they’ve dropped out of school, and are unsupervised at home.
  • An unsupervised kid who doesn’t watch much television might still commit more crimes than a supervised kid who doesn’t watch much television.
  • If you really do have evidence like that described above, then claiming that television causes crime confuses correation with causation.

To Cite… or not to Cite?

You do not need to cite common facts or observations such as “a circle has 360 degrees” or “8-tracks and vinyl records are out of date,” but you would need to cite specific claims such as “circles have religious and philosophical significance in many cultures” or “the sales of 8-track tapes never approached those of vinyl records.”



Dennis G. Jerz
23 Oct 2001 — draft first posted
10 Dec 2002 — updated
03 Oct 2007 — inserted material removed from a handout on integrating quotations
13 Jan 2011 — updated; contextualized out-of-date “current event”; removed an outdated Britney Spears reference
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