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Research step-by-step: 2) Understand information

Follow the tabs for a Step-by-Step Research Guide

Questions? Ask a Librarian


Below are six things to consider about information.  Use them as a check list to determine if the information you find is appropriate to use for your college paper or project.


1) the format

2) the level of credibility

3) scholarly or popular

4) current or contemporary

5) primary or secondary

6) Copyright and Fair Use


1) The format.   The format of information can be a book, e-book, journal, e-journal, magazine, website, movie, television, conversation, text message and so on.  For our purposes, we will look at books and periodicals since they are what you will most likely be using for your classes.  Periodical’ is a term that encompasses newspapers, magazines, journals and other things that are published periodically.

Information Source


Where to find them

Author(s) & Audience





Use to get the most current info and ideas for a topic.   

Newspapers provide very current information. Use old historic newspapers to learn how a current event long ago was described right when it happened.

Find newspaper articles via an article database or via a web search.


Newspaper articles are written for the general public by reporters and journalist and published after review of an editor(s).

E-magazines &



Use to get ideas for your topic.


Magazines are usually at least a week to a month behind the newspapers as far as currency goes and, therefore, often have more in-depth stories.

Find magazine articles via an article database or via a web search.


Magazine articles are written for the general public by reporters and journalist and published after review of an editor(s).

Reference works including 



Handbooks, Almanacs and

other reference materials


Use encyclopedias to get an overview of your topic so you will better understand  books and articles. Subject specific handbooks, almanacs and dictionaries provide precise nuggets of information.

Reference works can be general, like World Book, or very specific like 

The Encyclopedia of the Solar System.  They can be electronic or in paper (book format). Paper reference books are only used in the library.


A librarian can help you find a good encyclopedia on your topic that will provide an overview before you get into in-depth research.

Find reference and e-reference materials, including encyclopedias, via the library catalog and librarians. 


Reference works are written for the general public, students, or experts in the field.  They are written, compiled and/or edited by experts in the field. 





Use to get in-depth narrower info on your topic or on parts of your topic.

Articles in journals are most often based on research and, therefore, can often take a couple of years to write.  They provide detailed information about narrow topics.


Find journal articles on your topic via article databases.  Some journal articles are available via a Google-type search, but often you have to pay for them.  The college has already purchased hundreds of thousands of articles for you to use for free.


Articles in journals are written by experts in the field for others in the field or those wanting scholarly information.  In general, when an article is submitted for publication, the editorial board sends the article to other experts in the field.  In this way, the article is peer reviewed before publication.





Use to get broad deep info on your topic or on parts of your topic.

Books provide in-depth information and have the room to explore many aspects of the same topic.

Find books via the library catalog.


Anyone can write a book and get it published.  Academic libraries do their best to purchase books that are appropriate for your classes.  Look for the authors' credentials and the publisher's reputation such as a publisher that is a university's press.


2) Credibility of the information.  What you are going to do with the information will determine how credible the information needs to be.  If Grandma tells you to eat your greens because they are good for you, that should be good enough and you ought to eat them!  If you want to write a college paper on why greens are good for you to eat, you are going to need more credible information than Grandma or a newspaper article.  You will need scholarly information. 

     When writing a college paper, you will need credible information.  You will look for scholarly books and peer reviewed journal articles on your topic written by experts on your topic.  Perhaps there is a university professor who is highly regarded in her field of nuclear medicine.  Say she writes an article on the economic impact of the Olympic games in Japan.  Is she an expert in the field?  Would that article be peer reviewed?  Would that be a good one to use for a paper about the Olympics?  No, no, and nope. But, her articles about nuclear medicine would be appropriate for a college paper on nuclear medicine.

3) Scholarly and popular sources. Basically, scholarly sources, including peer reviewed articles, are written by experts in the field to be read by the same.  As students,  you read these to begin on your path to being an expert.  Popular sources are intended for a popular audience that does not necessarily have in-depth knowledge of the field nor want it. This is covered a bit more in the table above.  Did your professor stipulate that you needed scholarly information for your paper? Reread your assignment or ask your professor if you are not sure.

4) Current and contemporary sources.  Current sources of information have been written very recently.  Examples of current sources are an article about brush fires that started at the beginning of the week or a book written recently about Abraham Lincoln.  To determine if something is current, look at the date and see if it was written recently.  Contemporary sources of information were written at the time of the event.  To determine if something is contemporary, look to see if it was written at or near the time of the event.  For example, a contemporary source of information with Abraham Lincoln is the XIII Amendment, the Gettysburg Address or a newspaper article written in 1860. Do you need current information for your paper? Do you need contemporary information?

5) Primary and secondary sources of information.  One way to figure out if something is a primary source is to ask yourself, "Can I get any closer to the actual event/person I am interested in studying?"  If you can, then it is probably not the primary source.  If you use an article written using diaries and interviews as the source of information you would be using a secondary source.  You can get closer to the event/person if you read the diaries and interviews themselves. They would be primary sources. Diaries, interviews, trial records, and original research are often given as examples of a primary source.  A secondary source usually interprets a primary source and include encyclopedias, many magazine articles and books.  

     Determining if something is a primary or secondary source can get blurry because it really depends upon what you are studying.  If I am interested in women's experiences in California during the gold rush, a great primary source would be the Shirley Letters which were written by a women who lived in gold rush towns. If, however, I was interested in how 1849 gold rush folks built gold rush mines and "Shirley" wrote about this from what she heard in a bar or read in a 1849 paper, then her letters become a great secondary information source about how they built gold mines. 

      As you can see, the lines can be blurred.  An autobiography, a book written about the author by the author, is a primary source document about the author. It is, however, partly a secondary source if, in part of the book, the author writes about her great Aunt Nelly's stories of riding the Colorado River rapids long before the author was born. A biography, a book written about someone by someone else, is a secondary source. It is, however, partly a primary source if a part of the book describes a time the author shared with the subject of the biography. For example, let's say there is a biography about President Obama written by someone who knew him in grammar school.  As a biography, it is a secondary source, except for the part of the biography in which the author talks about an event they went to together as children. That part could be considered a primary source regarding that event. Want more clarification?  Check with your professor or a librarian.


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