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2.5 Researching Credible Connections Assignment

Writers classify research resources in two categories: primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are direct, firsthand sources of information or data. For example, if you were writing a paper about the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, the text of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights would be a primary source.

Secondary sources discuss, interpret, analyze, consolidate, or otherwise rework information from primary sources. In researching a paper about the First Amendment, you might read articles about legal cases that involved First Amendment rights, or editorials expressing commentary on the First Amendment. These sources would be considered secondary sources because they are one step removed from the primary source of information.

Your topic and purpose determine whether you must cite both primary and secondary sources in your paper. Ask yourself which sources are most likely to provide the information that will answer your research questions. If you are writing a research paper about reality television shows, you will need to use some reality shows as a primary source, but secondary sources, such as a reviewer’s critique, are also important. If you are writing about the health effects of nicotine, you will probably want to read the published results of scientific studies, but secondary sources, such as magazine articles discussing the outcome of a recent study, may also be helpful.

Once you have thought about what kinds of sources are most likely to help you answer your research questions, you may begin your search for print and electronic resources. The challenge here is to conduct your search efficiently. Writers use strategies to help them find the sources that are most relevant and reliable while steering clear of sources that will not be useful.

Finding Print Resources

Print resources include a vast array of documents and publications. Regardless of your topic, you will consult some print resources as part of your research. (You will use electronic sources as well, but it is not wise to limit yourself to electronic sources only, because some potentially useful sources may be available only in print form.) Table 11.1 “Library Print Resources” lists different types of print resources available at public and university libraries.

Table 11.1 Library Print Resources

Resource TypeDescriptionExample(s)
Reference works

Reference works provide a summary of information about a particular topic. Almanacs, encyclopedias, atlases, medical reference books, and scientific abstracts are examples of reference works. In some cases, reference books may not be checked out of a library.

Note that reference works are many steps removed from original primary sources and are often brief, so these should be used only as a starting point when you gather information.

  • The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2010
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association
Nonfiction booksNonfiction books provide in-depth coverage of a topic. Trade books, biographies, and how-to guides are usually written for a general audience. Scholarly books and scientific studies are usually written for an audience that has specialized knowledge of a topic.
  • The Low-Carb Solution: A Slimmer You in 30 Days
  • Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins: Exploring the Relationship Between Macronutrient Ratios and Health Outcomes
Periodicals and news sourcesThese sources are published at regular intervals—daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Newspapers, magazines, and academic journals are examples. Some periodicals provide articles on subjects of general interest, while others are more specialized.
  • New York Times
  • PC Magazine
  • JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association
Government publicationsFederal, state, and local government agencies publish information on a variety of topics. Government publications include reports, legislation, court documents, public records, statistics, studies, guides, programs, and forms.
  • The Census 2000 Profile
  • The Business Relocation Package published by the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce
Business and nonprofit publicationsBusinesses and nonprofit organizations produce publications designed to market a product, provide background about the organization, provide information on topics connected to the organization, or promote a cause. These publications include reports, newsletters, advertisements, manuals, brochures, and other print documents.
  • A company’s instruction manual explaining how to use a specific software program
  • A news release published by the Sierra Club

Some of these resources are also widely available in electronic format. In addition to the resources noted in the table, library holdings may include primary texts such as historical documents, letters, and diaries.

Writing at Work

Businesses, government organizations, and nonprofit organizations produce published materials that range from brief advertisements and brochures to lengthy, detailed reports. In many cases, producing these publications requires research. A corporation’s annual report may include research about economic or industry trends. A charitable organization may use information from research in materials sent to potential donors.

Regardless of the industry you work in, you may be asked to assist in developing materials for publication. Often, incorporating research in these documents can make them more effective in informing or persuading readers.


As you gather information, strive for a balance of accessible, easy-to-read sources and more specialized, challenging sources. Relying solely on lightweight books and articles written for a general audience will drastically limit the range of useful, substantial information. On the other hand, restricting oneself to dense, scholarly works could make the process of researching extremely time-consuming and frustrating.

Exercise 1

Make a list of five types of print resources you could use to find information about your research topic. Include at least one primary source. Be as specific as possible—if you have a particular resource or type of resource in mind, describe it.

To find print resources efficiently, first identify the major concepts and terms you will use to conduct your search—that is, your keywords. These, along with the research questions you identified in Chapter 11 “Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?”, Section 11.2 “Steps in Developing a Research Proposal”, will help you find sources using any of the following methods:

  • Using the library’s online catalog or card catalog
  • Using periodicals indexes and databases
  • Consulting a reference librarian

You probably already have some keywords in mind based on your preliminary research and writing. Another way to identify useful keywords is to visit the Library of Congress’s website at http://id.loc.gov/authorities. This site allows you to search for a topic and see the related subject headings used by the Library of Congress, including broader terms, narrower terms, and related terms. Other libraries use these terms to classify materials. Knowing the most-used terms will help you speed up your keyword search.

Jorge used the Library of Congress site to identify general terms he could use to find resources about low-carb dieting. His search helped him identify potentially useful keywords and related topics, such as carbohydrates in human nutrition, glycemic index, and carbohydrates—metabolism. These terms helped Jorge refine his search.


Knowing the right keywords can sometimes make all the difference in conducting a successful search. If you have trouble finding sources on a topic, consult a librarian to see whether you need to modify your search terms.

Exercise 2

Visit the Library of Congress’s website at http://id.loc.gov/authorities and conduct searches on a few terms related to your topic.

  1. Review your search results and identify six to eight additional terms you might use when you conduct your research.
  2. Print out the search results or save the results to your research folder on your computer or portable storage device.

Using Periodicals, Indexes, and Databases

Library catalogs can help you locate book-length sources, as well as some types of nonprint holdings, such as CDs, DVDs, and audio books. To locate shorter sources, such as magazine and journal articles, you will need to use a periodical index or an online periodical database. These tools index the articles that appear in newspapers, magazines, and journals. Like catalogs, they provide publication information about an article and often allow users to access a summary or even the full text of the article.

Print indexes may be available in the periodicals section of your library. Increasingly, libraries use online databases that users can access through the library website. A single library may provide access to multiple periodical databases. These can range from general news databases to specialized databases. Table 11.2 “Commonly Used Indexes and Databases” describes some commonly used indexes and databases.

Table 11.2 Commonly Used Indexes and Databases

New York Times IndexPrintGuide to articles published in the New York Times
ProQuestOnlineDatabase that archives content from newspapers, magazines, and dissertations
Psychlit, PsycINFOOnlineDatabases that archive content from journals in psychology and psychiatry
Business Source CompleteOnlineDatabase that archives business-related content from magazines and journals
MEDLINE, PubMedOnlineDatabases that archive articles in medicine and health
EBSCOhostOnlineGeneral database that provides access to articles on a wide variety of topics

Reading Popular and Scholarly Periodicals

When you search for periodicals, be sure to distinguish among different types. Mass-market publications, such as newspapers and popular magazines, differ from scholarly publications in their accessibility, audience, and purpose.

Newspapers and magazines are written for a broader audience than scholarly journals. Their content is usually quite accessible and easy to read. Trade magazines that target readers within a particular industry may presume the reader has background knowledge, but these publications are still reader-friendly for a broader audience. Their purpose is to inform and, often, to entertain or persuade readers as well.

Scholarly or academic journals are written for a much smaller and more expert audience. The creators of these publications assume that most of their readers are already familiar with the main topic of the journal. The target audience is also highly educated. Informing is the primary purpose of a scholarly journal. While a journal article may advance an agenda or advocate a position, the content will still be presented in an objective style and formal tone. Entertaining readers with breezy comments and splashy graphics is not a priority.

Because of these differences, scholarly journals are more challenging to read. That doesn’t mean you should avoid them. On the contrary, they can provide in-depth information unavailable elsewhere. Because knowledgeable professionals carefully review the content before publication, scholarly journals are far more reliable than much of the information available in popular media. Seek out academic journals along with other resources. Just be prepared to spend a little more time processing the information.

Writing at Work

Periodicals databases are not just for students writing research papers. They also provide a valuable service to workers in various fields. The owner of a small business might use a database such as Business Source Premiere to find articles on management, finance, or trends within a particular industry. Health care professionals might consult databases such as MedLine to research a particular disease or medication. Regardless of what career path you plan to pursue, periodicals databases can be a useful tool for researching specific topics and identifying periodicals that will help you keep up with the latest news in your industry.

Consulting a Reference Librarian

Sifting through library stacks and database search results to find the information you need can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. If you are not sure how you should begin your search, or if it is yielding too many or too few results, you are not alone. Many students find this process challenging, although it does get easier with experience. One way to learn better search strategies is to consult a reference librarian.

Reference librarians are intimately familiar with the systems libraries use to organize and classify information. They can help you locate a particular book in the library stacks, steer you toward useful reference works, and provide tips on how to use databases and other electronic research tools. Take the time to see what resources you can find on your own, but if you encounter difficulties, ask for help. Many university librarians hold virtual office hours and are available for online chatting.

Exercise 3

Visit your library’s website or consult with a reference librarian to determine what periodicals indexes or databases would be useful for your research. Depending on your topic, you may rely on a general news index, a specialized index for a particular subject area, or both. Search the catalog for your topic and related keywords. Print out or bookmark your search results.

  1. Identify at least one to two relevant periodicals, indexes, or databases.
  2. Conduct a keyword search to find potentially relevant articles on your topic.
  3. Save your search results. If the index you are using provides article summaries, read these to determine how useful the articles are likely to be.
  4. Identify at least three to five articles to review more closely. If the full article is available online, set aside time to read it. If not, plan to visit our library within the next few days to locate the articles you need.


One way to refine your keyword search is to use Boolean operators. These operators allow you to combine keywords, find variations on a word, and otherwise expand or limit your results. Here are some of the ways you can use Boolean operators:

  • Combine keywords with and or + to limit results to citations that include both keywords—for example, diet + nutrition.
  • Combine keywords with not or to search for the first word without the second. This can help you eliminate irrelevant results based on words that are similar to your search term. For example, searching for obesity not childhood locates materials on obesity but excludes materials on childhood obesity.
  • Enclose a phrase in quotation marks to search for an exact phrase, such as “morbid obesity.”
  • Use parentheses to direct the order of operations in a search string. For example, since Type II diabetes is also known as adult-onset diabetes, you could search (Type II or adult-onset) and diabetes to limit your search results to articles on this form of the disease.
  • Use a wildcard symbol such as #, ?, or $ after a word to search for variations on a term. For instance, you might type diabet# to search for information on diabetes and diabetics. The specific symbol used varies with different databases.

Finding and Using Electronic Resources

With the expansion of technology and media over the past few decades, a wealth of information is available to you in electronic format. Some types of resources, such as a television documentary, may only be available electronically. Other resources—for instance, many newspapers and magazines—may be available in both print and electronic form. The following are some of the electronic sources you might consult:

  • Online databases
  • CD-ROMs
  • Popular web search engines
  • Websites maintained by businesses, universities, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies
  • Newspapers, magazines, and journals published on the web
  • E-books
  • Audio books
  • Industry blogs
  • Radio and television programs and other audio and video recordings
  • Online discussion groups

The techniques you use to locate print resources can also help you find electronic resources efficiently. Libraries usually include CD-ROMs, audio books, and audio and video recordings among their holdings. You can locate these materials in the catalog using a keyword search. The same Boolean operators used to refine database searches can help you filter your results in popular search engines.

Using Internet Search Engines Efficiently

When faced with the challenge of writing a research paper, some students rely on popular search engines as their first source of information. Typing a keyword or phrase into a search engine instantly pulls up links to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of related websites—what could be easier? Unfortunately, despite its apparent convenience, this research strategy has the following drawbacks to consider:

  • Results do not always appear in order of reliability. The first few hits that appear in search results may include sites whose content is not always reliable, such as online encyclopedias that can be edited by any user. Because websites are created by third parties, the search engine cannot tell you which sites have accurate information.
  • Results may be too numerous for you to use. The amount of information available on the web is far greater than the amount of information housed within a particular library or database. Realistically, if your web search pulls up thousands of hits, you will not be able to visit every site—and the most useful sites may be buried deep within your search results.
  • Search engines are not connected to the results of the search. Search engines find websites that people visit often and list the results in order of popularity. The search engine, then, is not connected to any of the results. When you cite a source found through a search engine, you do not need to cite the search engine. Only cite the source.

A general web search can provide a helpful overview of a topic and may pull up genuinely useful resources. To get the most out of a search engine, however, use strategies to make your search more efficient. Use multiple keywords and Boolean operators to limit your results. Click on the Advanced Search link on the homepage to find additional options for streamlining your search. Depending on the specific search engine you use, the following options may be available:

  • Limit results to websites that have been updated within a particular time frame.
  • Limit results by language or country.
  • Limit results to scholarly works available online.
  • Limit results by file type.
  • Limit results to a particular domain type, such as .edu (school and university sites) or .gov (government sites). This is a quick way to filter out commercial sites, which can often lead to more objective results.

Use the Bookmarks or Favorites feature of your web browser to save and organize sites that look promising.

Using Other Information Sources: Interviews

With so many print and electronic media readily available, it is easy to overlook another valuable information resource: other people. Consider whether you could use a person or group as a primary source. For instance, you might interview a professor who has expertise in a particular subject, a worker within a particular industry, or a representative from a political organization. Interviews can be a great way to get firsthand information.

To get the most out of an interview, you will need to plan ahead. Contact your subject early in the research process and explain your purpose for requesting an interview. Prepare detailed questions. Open-ended questions, rather than questions with simple yes-or-no answers, are more likely to lead to an in-depth discussion. Schedule a time to meet, and be sure to obtain your subject’s permission to record the interview. Take careful notes and be ready to ask follow-up questions based on what you learn.


If scheduling an in-person meeting is difficult, consider arranging a telephone interview or asking your subject to respond to your questions via e-mail. Recognize that any of these formats takes time and effort. Be prompt and courteous, avoid going over the allotted interview time, and be flexible if your subject needs to reschedule.

I actually was asked to write an article about this issue for The Washington Post.  It ended up being syndicated by several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News and others.  I hope it proves helpful as you ponder this question.

The Washington Post

Wikiality in My Classroom
By Jacqueline Hicks Grazette
Sunday, March 25, 2007

It's another Monday morning, and I click online and scroll through my e-mail for the take-home exams my high school students finished over the weekend. I am delighted that most look good, but as I read one I notice an answer that ends with a footnote, something I have never seen on a take-home test.

The footnote directed me to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute articles and information. My high school student was letting me know that he had used it to help him answer this exam question. What was not clear was how he had used it. What part of the answer relied on Wikipedia? Had he just lifted something verbatim and pasted it in? Had he been caught up in comedian Stephen Colbert's infamous "Wikiality" -- an online world made up of collections of untruths that are widely accepted?

In the online world in which teachers and students navigate, ambiguity of this kind is daily fare. For young people who have grown up with instant access to information, it seems like no big deal. But to educators, trained in accurate sourcing and correct attribution, deciding what the limits should be often poses a dilemma.

Wikipedia use has become a hot issue on high school and college campuses. The history department of Middlebury College has declared that Wikipedia "is not an appropriate source for citation," though it can be useful in pointing students to sources of more reliable information.

But Wikipedia isn't the only online source kids use, and teachers' concerns are broader. Googling has made even graduate students more apt to click online before they click "on-mind" to complete assignments. I had a graduate intern who wasted hours trying to find a phone number through Google even though it was readily available in the local phone book. That tells me that online search engines may be taking a toll on students' ability to take initiative and be resourceful problem solvers.

A few clicks on the computer and today's students find data that might have taken my 1980s college generation days or weeks to track down in a library. That may not necessarily be a good thing, because we may be developing the same kind of dependence that leads some to blame calculators for declining math skills.

Are we creating a generation of kids who can neither formulate a research plan nor analyze their findings? Jumping from page to page and source to source for quick "fact bites" on the Internet may weaken a student's ability to complete in-depth reading and carefully assess data, so important for critical thinking. As one student put it to me, "It's very hard for me to read a book or a long news article."

There is also the issue of plagiarism and cheating. When Duke University's Center for Academic Integrity (CAI) surveyed 12,000 college students and 18,000 high school students, roughly 40 percent of the college students and half the high school students indicated that they had cheated using online sources. This included such things as not citing those sources, purchasing exams and papers online, and cutting and pasting downloaded information. Exchanging e-mails about assignments that were not team projects was also cited as a less-than-kosher practice.

Many teachers do not know how to detect online cheating, and others are reluctant to report it, another CAI survey found. There is pressure to produce high achievers. Cheating scandals may bring bad publicity and drawn-out administrative procedures to a school. Worse, CAI's numbers suggest, today's networked students are part of a culture that considers online cheating "no big deal."

I saw support for that finding when I interviewed public and private high school students in the Washington area. Most knew of online cheating, and while they didn't condone it, the majority said they would not report it. "We are part of a networked society," one student told me. "Your world is different from ours. We are taught to share information and collaborate. We do it all the time. No one really cares where it came from."

That, in a sense, is the essence of online culture. Shareware sites (free programs and information) abound. Unattributed information constantly arrives in my inbox -- Internet "warnings," excerpts from articles, quotes and YouTube moments that someone thinks are a riot. Rarely is the author or source identified. News agencies quote from blogs.

Can we expect our students to model behavior that is any different from those of the adults around them? Princeton University thinks we can. A university Web site called Academic Integrity at Princeton acknowledges the paradigm shift that students I interviewed described: "Much of the ethic of the Internet, which emerged from the computer culture of collaborative work . . . is in tension with the values and practices of traditional scholarship," it states.

Yet Princeton makes clear that it is not for students to decide what is "common knowledge," and insists that they obey the standard of traditional notation for intellectual property or suffer serious academic consequences. Its model of online ethical standards declares that non-print and electronic sources must be treated with the same respect as printed materials. It provides a protocol for citing electronic sources and warns about the quality of some online sources.

My student with the questionable footnote appreciates this type of direct guidance. As it turned out, even with the online help his answer was wrong. Outcomes like that may be the best antidote of all to a student's online dependency.

As we talked about his answer, he confessed that he used Wikipedia because he felt he could not comprehend or complete all the readings assigned, and was desperate to get the question answered. And he noted that parents or teachers often tell kids who ask questions, "Look it up online." He felt that kids are so programmed to be on the fast track in high school -- "from high school to the great college to the job to the 2.5 kids and the beautiful house" -- that no one really wants to slow down and deal with ethics.

Librarians are a key resource in teaching appropriate Internet skills. Many have invested in databases that direct kids toward quality online sources and research methods. Few students remember to use them, and even fewer teachers assign them as a first source for research projects. The Prince George's County Memorial Library System offers online tutors to help kids think through proper methods for finding answers. When I tested the program, it was not a "let me tell you the answer" approach but a true partnership of inquiry between the tutor and the student.

Not every teacher finds students' preference for online research a bad thing. Brad Rathgeber, a history teacher and academic technology director at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, thinks the Internet, used properly, can be an innovative extension of the classroom. Students at Holton-Arms have turned their knowledge of Wikipedia's methods into an asset.

Rather than create "truthiness" (Colbert's word for something that sounds true but is not), Holton students work in teams to build "wiki" pages after extensive research and writing. This requires them not only to find facts and data, but also to analyze the quality of the information and present it in a well-written fashion, able to withstand scrutiny. That's important, because once the information is posted on a password-protected school server, other students and faculty rely on it.

In my American Government class, the Internet is a tool -- but only that -- as students study the Constitution through Supreme Court cases. Deciphering written opinions can be difficult for high schoolers, so I send them to the Supreme Court's Oyez Web site to listen to recordings of oral arguments. Their understanding of the constitutional issues improves dramatically when they hear the justices' questions and the lawyers' answers. Students can compare the give and take with their own analyses. In this way, the Supreme Court comes to life for them.

Making use of kids' natural comfort with online learning may require a different skill set for teachers. Most schools do not evaluate teachers on the innovative use of online technology. And with all the other watchdog roles on teachers' plates, many may not welcome the new role of monitoring Internet ethics. Changes will be needed in how teachers are trained and rewarded to fulfill the Internet's educational potential.

Will teachers be able to keep up with this iPod generation? The honest answer is that the jury is still out. The only thing we do know is that students are using online resources. We can no longer afford to ignore the "downloading" classroom.

Jacqueline Hicks Grazette taught American government, history and journalism at St. Albans School. 


7/11/2013 | Jacqueline G.

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