Selecting Sources

Selecting information sources for an academic project begins with understanding the project's purpose and requirements. Information sources may serve as sources of ideas or definitions for a project, be themselves a project's subject, help illustrate a point, support an argument, or provide instructions for a project's execution. Whatever the case may be, the best sources of information are relevant to the project's purpose and meet its requirements. Here we focus on selecting sources to support arguments, but these criteria could also be useful when selecting sources for other purposes.

Criteria for Selecting Sources to Support a Point
Purpose Authoritativeness
Coverage Objectivity
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Purpose

Sources intended to disseminate the findings of sound research are the most desirable when one needs to support an argument. These include reference sources, monographs, journal articles, technical reports, theses and dissertations and some websites, especially those belonging to government agencies, colleges and universities, and non-profit organizations. Reference to such sources may sometimes be found in newspapers and magazines. Sources that document history such as archival records and images of historical objects can, for obvious reasons, be very useful when providing historical evidence.

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Coverage

Coverage refers to the extent to which a source deals with a topic. This includes a consideration of factors such as breadth, depth and currency. A project may only require basic information on a broad subject, or a lot a detail on a narrow topic; it may call for the use of only the latest research or be exclusively concerned with historical records. Other factors such as populations and geography may also play a role in the need for information sources. This would be the case, for example, in a project on the cultivation of Acer Palmatum in Central Texas, or one on the reasons for the high incidence of cancer in women residing in Long Island, New York. So in selecting sources, it is wise to stick to those more closely matching the scope of the project itself.

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Objectivity

All information sources are influenced by the biases of authors and publishers. These may be clearly stated or vaguely implied, but recognizing them, and the extent to which they shape the information provided, is quite important. Examples include historical documents describing events in a way that supports their authors' beliefs or values, evolution as a theory underpinning biological and geological research, and theological research beginning with the assumption that the Bible is not inspired. On the other end of the spectrum are news reports adhering to a strict description of an event with a balanced coverage of conflicting accounts. Bias is not necessarily bad, but it helps when authors and publishers state them clearly and leave room for interpretations based on different assumptions. Look for sources where this is the case.

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Authoritativeness

Finally, the best sources come from authors who have devoted ample time to study a topic, developed hypotheses, test them, and have their methods and results scrutinized by others. This is the case for journal articles in which authors with advanced educational degrees publish their research after their peers review it. The authoritativeness of such a source compounds when it is used in like-caliber sources as a basis for argumentation.

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