Have a research paper looming on the horizon? No problem! In continuation of my series on academic writing, I’m here to make the prospect of that research paper a little less daunting. Once you understand the “research mechanics” of a research paper, this will be easier than you think.
Let’s talk sources.
What is a source?
A source is very generally a text or object of some form utilized in some fashion within your research paper. This “text” can be a book, journal or newspaper article, podcast, lecture, interview, artwork, artifact, video/film, webpage, official document and/or manuscript—the list goes on! In your research paper, you will “consult” specific sources and “cite” them in your research paper, as a means of supporting, extending, and evidencing an argument.
There are two significant types of sources: primary and secondary sources.
A primary source is a document or physical object that was written or created during the time under study. These were actually, physically present during a certain time period. Think of primary sources as giving an insider’s perspective on a certain event or time. Some types include:
- Original documents, like letters, articles, speeches, autobiographies, news film footage, manuscripts, pamphlets, early works, and diaries (The Diary of Anne Frank; a collection of letters sent between several London residents in 1581; a political treatise; film footage of a tornado)
- Relics or artifacts: furniture, buildings, clothing, you name it!
- Creative works: Drama, novels, poetry, music, art (Dickens’ Bleak House, a collection of Simon Armitage’s poetry, a Mozart symphony)
A secondary source analyzes and interprets primary sources. These sources, it is important to note, were not necessarily written during the time of the primary source. Examples include:
- Publications: criticisms, commentaries, textbooks, magazine articles, histories, encyclopedias
How do you find sources?
Most university libraries have extensive collections of secondary and primary sources. Rare books and special collections departments additionally contain archives of mostly primary sources, for these include rare manuscripts and texts. Most often you will have to register as a patron or reader in order to look at these manuscripts. But many libraries have online, digitized copies of older texts, which still count as primary sources. Don’t forget that primary sources aren’t always old either! There are just as many contemporary primary sources as there are old.
It should be fairly easy to tell the difference between primary and secondary sources, especially when you are searching for your sources using an online catalogue. That being said, don’t be afraid to ask your librarian for assistance if you are confused about where to find something or whether a book qualifies as primary or secondary.
Which type of source do you use most?
It depends upon the research paper. If you are writing a literature essay, you will automatically be using at least one primary source: the text you are writing about! A basic English paper might include one primary source (say, The Diary of Anne Frank) and 1-3 secondary sources (scholars’ criticism or ideas about The Diary of Anne Frank or the Holocaust). A lengthy research paper may include several pages of sources, both primary and secondary.
What does it mean to “cite”?
It is absolutely critical that you cite every source you use in order to avoid plagiarism. There are several established methods used to cite sources. The most popular two are the MLA or Chicago formats, which entail in-paragraph citation or footnotes, and a bibliography or works cited page at the end of your essay. I will be discussing these in depth in the coming weeks. For now, just remember: never quote something without citing it!
Check out the next posts in this 8 part series on writing academically:
- Writing Academically Part 5 – Citations
- Writing Academically Part 6 – Writing Vocabulary
- Writing Academically Part 7 – Introductions
- Writing Academically Part 8 – Wrapping things up
Check out my previous posts:
- Writing Academically Part 1 – What’s the Point?
- Writing Academically Part 2 – Lexicon
- Writing Academically Part 3 – Structure
About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.