2-Types of Sources

9. Data as Sources

Using data as sources can help with all of your research project’s information needs:

  • Learn more background information.
  • Answer your research question. (The evidence that data provide can help you decide on the best answer for your question.)
  • Convince your audience that your answer is correct. (Data often give you evidence that your answer is correct.)
  • Describe the situation surrounding your research question.
  • Report what others have said about your research question.


Activity: Example of Data

Check out this very detailed data about frozen lasagna. Did you ever think this much data was available? Are there elements new to you? How might you use such data?


Movie: Reinterpreting Little Red Riding Hood

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What is data?

The word means many things to many people. (Consider “data” as it relates to your phone contract, for instance!) For our purposes, a definition we like is “units of information observed, collected, or created in the course of research.”
Erway, Ricky. 2013. Starting the Conversation: University-wide Research Data Management Policy. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Research.

TIP: From Latin
Data is the plural of datum. (It’s similar to how media is the plural of medium.)

Data observed, collected, or created for research purposes can be numbers, text, images, audio clips, and video clips. But in this section on using data as sources, we’re going to concentrate on numerical data.

Sometimes data are actually necessary to answer research questions, particularly in the social sciences, life, and physical sciences. For instance, data would be necessary to support or rule out these hypotheses:

  • More women than men voted in the last presidential election in a majority of states.
  • A certain drug shows promising results in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.
  • Listening to certain genres of music lowers blood pressure.
  • People of certain religious denominations are more likely to find a specific television program objectionable.
  • The average weight of house cats in the United States has increased over the past 30 years.
  • The average square footage of supermarkets in the United States has increased in the past 20 years.
  • More tomatoes were consumed per person in the United Kingdom in 2022 than in 1962.
  • Exploding volcanoes can help cool the planet by spewing sulfur dioxide, which combines with water vapor to make reflective aerosols.

So using numeric data in those portions of your final product that require evidence can often strengthen your argument that your answer to your research question is correct or the most reasonable answer. At other times, even if data are not actually necessary, numeric data can be particularly persuasive and sharpen the points you want to make in other portions of your final product devoted to, say, describing the situation surrounding your research question. (See Chapter 9, Making an Argument)

For example, for a research paper about the research question “Why are there many more people who qualify for food from U.S. foodbanks than the number of people who actually use foodbanks?,” you could find data on the website of Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of foodbanks.

Similarly, for a project with the research question “How do some birds in Australia use “smart” hunting techniques to flush out prey, including starting fires?,” you might find a journal article with data about how many people have observed these techniques and estimates of how frequently the techniques are used and by how many bird species.

Obtaining Data

There are two ways of obtaining data:

  • Obtain data that already have been collected and analyzed. That’s what this section will cover.
  • Collect data yourself. This can include activities such as making observations about your environment, conducting surveys or interviews, directly recording measurements in a lab or in the field, or even receiving electronic data recorded by computers/machines that gather the data. You will explore these activities in courses you take.

Finding Data in Articles, Books, Web Pages, and More

Numeric search data can be found all over the place. A lot of it can be found as part of other sources such as books, journals, newspapers, magazine articles, and web pages. In these cases, the data do not stand alone as a distinct element but instead are part of the larger work.

When searching for data in books and articles and on web pages, terms such as statistics or data may or may not be useful search terms. That’s because many writers don’t use those terms in their scholarly writing. They tend to use the words findings or results when talking about the data that could be useful to you. In addition, statistics is a separate discipline, and using that term will turn up lots of journals in that area, which won’t be helpful to you. So use the search terms data and statistics with caution, especially when searching library catalogs. (See information on the Library Catalog. More information on searching is in Chapter 4 Precision Searching.)

Even without using those search terms, many scholarly sources you turn up are likely to contain data. Once you find potential sources, skim them for tables, graphs, or charts. These items are displays or illustrations of data gathered by researchers.  However, sometimes data and interpretations are solely in the body of the narrative text and may be included in sections called “Results” or “Findings.” (That shouldn’t keep you from displaying the data in charts, graphs, or tables as you like in your own work, though.)

If the data you find in a book, article, or web page are particularly helpful and you want more, you could contact the author to request additional numeric research data. Researchers will often discuss their data and its analysis – and sometimes provide some of it (or occasionally, all). Some may link to a larger numeric research data set. However, if a researcher shares his or her data with you, it may be in what’s called a “raw” form. This means that you might have to do additional analysis to make it useful in answering your question.

Depending on your research question, you may need to gather data from multiple sources to get everything you need to answer your research question and make your argument for it.  (See Chapter 9, Making an Argument.)

For instance, in our example related to foodbanks above, we suggested where you could find statistics about the number of people who get food from American food banks. But with that research question (“Why are there many more people who qualify for food from U.S. foodbanks than the number of people who actually use foodbanks?”), you would also need to find out from another source how many people qualify for foodbanks based on their income and compare that number with how many people actually use foodbanks.

Finding Data, Data Depositories, and Directories

Sometimes the numeric research data you need may not be in the articles, books, and websites that you’ve found. But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been collected and packaged in a usable format. Governments and research institutions often publish data they have collected in discipline-specific data depositories that make data available online. Here are some examples:

The United Nations and just about every country provide information as numeric data available online. Free and accessible data like this is called open data. The U.S. federal government, all states, and many local governments provide “open” data. You can find them (among other places) at site: .gov.

Other data are available through vendors who publish the data collected by researchers. Here are some examples:

Don’t know of a depository that could contain data in your discipline? Check out a data directory such as re3data.org where data can be registered.

Evaluating Data as Sources

Evaluating data for relevance and credibility is just as important as evaluating any other source. See Chapter 6, Evaluating Sources for help with that.




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Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research Copyright © 2015 by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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