3-Sources and Information Needs

2. Which Kinds of Sources Meet Which Needs?

Understanding the categories of sources explained in Chapter 2, Types of Sources, can give you a better sense of command over your sources. But because there are several categories, the options you have to meet your project’s information needs can still seem complex.


The upcoming section refers to courses in the arts, the sciences and social sciences, and the humanities. We make source recommendations accordingly. Deciding whether your particular course is in the arts or the sciences or social sciences may be pretty obvious to you.

But what kinds of courses are in the humanities? Different universities organize knowledge differently, and you can always ask you professor. In general, though, the recommendations in the next section for humanities courses apply to these kinds of courses:

  • Literature, religion, history, classics, languages, linguistics, museum studies, area or ethnic studies, and philosophy.

Our recommendations for the sciences also apply to these courses:

  • Engineering, architecture, computer science, physical anthropology, agriculture, physical geography, and math/statistics.

The recommendations for social sciences courses, such as education, sociology, social work, psychology, economics, and criminology, also apply to:

  • Business, political science, cultural anthropology, law, labor/management, and human geography.

Our best advice is to ask yourself these two questions when considering which sources you must use to meet an information need in a project for a specific course:

  1. Must I use only sources created for professional and scholarly audiences?If your course is in the sciences, social sciences, and engineering, the answer is most likely yes for all information needs except learning background information. Except when meeting that information need, those students’ sources will need to be professional and scholarly sources such as research journal articles, books by researchers and other scientists or academics, conference papers, tech reports, and theses and dissertations.While they may not be so limited, students in other kinds of courses (say, in the humanities) also may find that using professional and scholarly sources is often the best way for them to make their argument, too. That’s because such sources are often the most persuasive sources across disciplines. So just because you aren’t limited to those sources in a particular course doesn’t mean you can’t make good use of them.If your course is in the arts, the answer is usually no. Students in the arts, for instance, often use popular sources because that may be where their art first appears.In all cases, pay attention to what’s suggested in the instructions for your assignment and, if necessary, ask your professor.
  1. Must I pay attention to how close my sources are to the original information? In other words, are primary and secondary sources acceptable, while tertiary sources are not? If your course is in the humanities the answer is usually yes. For instance, your instructions for your history research project might tell you to “Use 5 sources, at least 2 of which are primary sources.” But even while students avoid tertiary sources, their primary and secondary sources still must be evaluated for relevance and accuracy just like their other sources. (See Chapter 6, Evaluating Sources.) Because of the information lifecycle, the latest secondary sources are often the best because their creators have had time for better analysis and more information to incorporate.The answer is likely to be no in science and social science courses, where the primary, secondary, and tertiary designations seldom come up. When they do, the term primary source usually does not mean original or contemporary with what is being studied. Instead, it is usually applied to the source that was most important to the researcher’s work.Many other courses outside the sciences and social sciences also tend not to place extra value on information that is closest to the original. To tell whether it matters in your course, pay attention to whether your professor uses the terms primary, secondary, and tertiary when discussing sources, and read your project instructions carefully. Don’t forget that you can ask your professor which kinds of sources matter in his or her discipline.

The material below should give you further details about how to meet particular information needs with sources.

To learn background information about your topic and research question:

  • No matter which kind of course you’re taking, when you first get a research assignment and perhaps for a considerable time afterward, you will almost always have to learn some background information before you can develop your research question and explore how to answer it.
  • Although you shouldn’t cite it as a source, Wikipedia is often a great source for background information. You may even want to check out the sources at the bottom of most pages because those sources can often be cited.
  • One important reason for finding background information is to learn the language that professionals and scholars have used when writing about your research question. The language you learn may be helpful to use as search terms later, particularly when you’re searching for sources to answer your research question. To identify that language, you can always type the word glossary and then the discipline for which you’re doing your assignment in the search engine search box.

Here are two examples to try searching: Glossary neuroscience and Glossary “social media marketing”

Tip: (Putting a phrase in quotation marks tells Google to search it as all words together rather than searching the individual words.)

  • You probably won’t be citing these background sources in your final product. They are usually only to build your understanding and help you develop a research question.
  • Because of that, use whatever kind of source you can understand. The intended audience and how close the source is to original information is not important at this stage. You are not limited to primary sources. Secondary sources that synthesize an event or work of art and even tertiary sources such as guidebooks and timelines can be a big help. Don’t forget your textbook for the course.
  • For most undergraduates, research journal articles are usually sources least likely to be helpful for background information because they are usually too technical and specific to be easily understood. Only after you have more understanding and are trying to meet other information needs will journal articles be more useful to you.

To describe the situation surrounding your research question for your audience and explain why it’s important:

  • Sources for this information need are among those you can cite in your final product.
  • In the sciences and social sciences, you are most likely limited to professional and scholarly sources.
  • In most other courses, you have more freedom to include whatever kinds of sources provide a clear and compelling reason why getting your research question answered is important and to whom.
  • Helen Sword, the author of Stylish Academic Prose, suggests using a literary quotation, a historical quotation, a personal or historical anecdote or one drawn from your research, a description of a scene or artwork, a surprising fact, or a challenging question.
  • Some examples of acceptable sources to meet this need outside the sciences and social sciences are substantive popular sources such as major newspaper or magazine articles and documentaries, books, poems, plays and movies, lyrics from songs, and examples and descriptions of artwork. Also acceptable, of course, are blogs, websites, and publications from professional associations, articles from scholarly research journals, conference papers, tech reports, and theses and dissertations. Those professional and scholarly sources listed are appropriate for science and social science courses, too.

To answer your research question, convince your audience that your answer is right or at least reasonable, and to report what others have reported about your research question:

  • These are among the sources you will cite in your final product.
  • For these information needs, the credibility of your sources is of paramount importance. You want your reader to believe your argument.
  • What is most credible varies by discipline.
  • Just ask yourself Questions 1 and 2 that appeared at the beginning of this chapter and choose your sources accordingly. And remember: you can always ask your professor about whether a particular source is useful.

You already may have realized that you can use the same source to meet more than one information need in your research project. For instance, let’s say you’re working on a presentation for an economics class. You could use a scholarly article or book to help you develop your research question, to report what others have said about the question, and to help you formulate your own answer. Of course, your professor also will want you to have investigated the perspective of more than one source, so you will be needing others. Still, it’s nice to know that a single source can meet more than one information need.

Here are some profiles of students choosing sources for their courses.


If you need more examples of sources that are primary, secondary, or tertiary and popular, professional, or scholarly, our Source Locator which you’ll find later in this chapter, is a good list of categorized sources. Chapter 2, Types of Sources, also has more detail about sources in each category.

ACTIVITY: Meeting Your Information Needs



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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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