Inver Hills Community College


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Click on any  part or section below:

Part I. Basics/Process

  A. Chapters 1-6: Start

  B. Ch. 7-13: Organize

  C. Ch. 14-20: Revise/Edit

Part II. College Writing

   D. Ch. 21-23: What Is It?

   E. Ch. 24-30: Write on Rdgs.

   F. Ch.31-35: Arguments

  G. Ch. 36-42: Research

  H. Ch. 43-48: Literature

   I.  Ch. 49-58: Majors & Work

Part III. Grammar

 Study Questions



Chapter 38: Choosing & Using Resources

What types of resources are allowed, and how should you use them?


Evaluating Websites Carefully

"Primary" vs. "Secondary" Sources

"Peer-reviewed" Sources vs. Wikipedia

Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

Scripture and Famous Quotations

Taking Notes

Searching Documents by Skimming

Conclusion: Why Worry about These Issues?



Should you know, already, how to research well when you enter college?  Most people don't--not at a college level.  Yet your instructors and professional workplace coordinators expect you to understand and use good research methods.  Here are some basic questions that this chapter answers:

"Are most websites okay to use in research papers?"

"What are those two things mentioned by some instructors that they call 'primary' and 'secondary' sources?"

"Are Wikipedia and other online encyclopedias allowed?"

"Do people need to take notes when researching?  When and why?"

"If you use a book as a resource, do you have to read the entire book--or pretend that you have?"  How about articles and websites?"

(Note: Much of this material comes from and from the chapter called "How to Read Texts" in this textbook.)


Evaluating Websites Carefully 

Don't fall for every .edu, .org, and pretty web interface.  Many .edu and .org web sites are written by individuals with wildly varying viewpoints, not their institutions' views or research orientation.  And some of the handsomest web designs have no worthwhile content for research purposes.  Some questions to answer about a website are

  • Is it written by a highly respected source?  If you don't know, try making a web search on the name of the organization or company that authored the site.  Also, try a web search on the title of the website and see if it is quoted or otherwise mentioned in other reputable websites.

  • Is it sufficiently up to date?  Look for the date at the bottom of the home page (and other pages).  A website with information written in the twentieth century on Alexander the Great might still be valid for a Humanities course, but a website with factual information for a science or psychology class usually must be written within a few years of the present date.

  • Is it complete?  Does the information cover, prove, or support what you actually need, or is the information not really to the point for your own needs?  If the latter is true, you may need to investigate additional or different sites.

  • Is the information balanced?  If one point of view is argued, are opposite or different points of view given a fair hearing, as well?

  • Is the site well written with good spelling, grammar, and general editing?  Simple errors in such mechanical errors often can be one sign of poor thinking or poor professional qualifications, as well.

  • Is the information from an expert?  If so, is his or her expertise verifiable?  And is the information firsthand (by the expert him or herself), or from someone else summarizing the expert's findings?  (See more about this in "Primary" vs. "Secondary" Sources and in "Peer-reviewed" Sources vs. Wikipedia below.)

You can learn more about the difference between instructor-approved and -disapproved web sites in videos at Maryland (audio & text, 5 min.), Portland (8 min.), W. Virginia (slides & audio, 4 min.); or in texts at Minnesota, Hacker & Fister, or UC Berkeley.  A good general, introductory set of written tutorials about web research, along with a slide show, is at Purdue.


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"Primary" vs "Secondary" Sources

Many instructors and professional coordinators consider the difference between these two absolutely important.  You may need to search for--or perform--both kinds.

A "primary" source can be yourself or someone else who has "created knowledge" himself or herself.  You are a primary resource if you have completed research that you have performed yourself, such as a lab experiment, a survey, or a professional observation and resulting report or article.  More commonly for your research writing, a "primary" source also is one that has, himself or herself, completed similar research or personally experienced something and is reporting it.  Primary resources include official scientific reports; research and observation studies in the social sciences and psychology; and personal observations in all fields if they are made in a thorough, logical, and balanced manner, such as those in good journalism and news reportage. 

A "secondary" source, on the other hand, is a report of a report.  It is written by someone who is discussing what has happened to someone else.  The author (or speaker) has not, himself or herself, directly experienced what he or she is reporting.  For example, most textbooks, most opinion journalism, and all summaries of other people's research work are secondary sources. 

For more on primary vs. secondary sources, see online resources at Toronto (written), or at California-San Diego or Hartness (3-5 min. videos).


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"Peer-reviewed" Sources vs. Wikipedia

"Peer-reviewed" sources and Wikipedia represent two opposing poles of what most instructors want to see in a research paper.  Here's an brief explanation of each.

First, the great majority of instructors do NOT want you to use Wikipedia as a resource for your paper.  However, it is useful for some purposes.  The most highly desired sources in many fields and for many papers are called "peer-reviewed" sources.  Here's a look at both.

First, Wikipedia is really helpful for checking out definitions and general ideas as a start.  However, you have to treat the ideas from it like you would as if they were ideas from a wide variety of your own friends and family.  Some of the articles are written by experts.  Some are written by people who know nothing more than nonfactual opinions about a subject.  And some people who consider themselves experts are not at all knowledgeable in many ways.  This is exactly why professors do NOT like Wikipedia. They do not want to see it in any college research paper, even a rough draft.  Instead, they prefer sources that, unlike Wikipedia, are "peer reviewed. 

The highest level of scholarly articles and books are called "peer-reviewed," "refereed," or "juried."  This means that a panel of scholars (from two to five or more, depending on the academic journal) have carefully examined the article or book and have determined that it is of high enough quality to publish.  Wikipedia lets anyone upload a new article or change in it, and if others do check it and change it, there is no note about their level of scholarly excellence. 

In many fields, specifically proven facts also are considered of highest value.  But even "facts" have to be proven, first.  If you can find a "fact" in at least three highly respected sources without the sources mentioning where the facts came from (or mentioning the same place), then likely what you have found is fact.  Wikipedia does not always do this, either, because it lets anyone state "facts."

So, Wikipedia might be a good place to start a search for information, but you can never trust the source of the information.  And neither can your professors.  So, use it if you want, but check out the info elsewhere--and use sources that professors consider more accurate.


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Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

Does the teacher need a definition of something?  It's highly unlikely in undergraduate and even most graduate papers.  If he/she doesn't, then don't provide it.  The tone and style you are supposed to adopt in college is that of an expert writing for other experts in the same field of study.  If those experts (and your teacher) don't need a definition, then don't have it.  The same goes for most general encyclopedia articles, as well--they are too general and obvious to teachers and similar scholars.  Exceptions, though, are what are called "subject encyclopedias/dictionaries."  For example, The Encyclopedia of Behavioral Psychology or The Oxford Shakespeare Dictionary may sometimes be quoted or paraphrased.  Ask your teacher!  They are sources that may hold descriptions unknown to or debated by experts in the same or related fields. 


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Scripture and Famous Quotations

Scripture and famous quotations, like Wikipedia and dictionaries, also are not considered good source materials.   Here's why.

First, scripture seems to many people like a great source.  No matter what religion you practice or know, scripture has lots of great lessons, stories, and advice.  However, scripture can be used to prove almost anything.  It is, therefore, not useful in scholarly papers for proving a point--someone else can just quote some other part of some other scripture to prove the opposite.  In fact, scripture in most papers is like using famous quotations: college instructors don't really want a bunch of famous quotatons because they don't really prove anything: someone can prove the opposite--or several differing points of view--by quoting some different famous quotes.

The exception for scripture is when you are actually researching the scripture itself.  For example, perhaps you are taking a religion, humanities, or history course and are trying to explain several potentially opposing points of view that, for example, Moses, Mohammed, or Buddha might have expressed about a specific subject such as, perhaps,  "a man's duty to woman."  Then you might offer several different passages from different parts of scripture to illustrate several possible interpretations.

Likewise, famous quotations sometimes are acceptable to some teachers as an interesting way to start or end a paper--an introduction or conclusion.  But they better really nail your subject or your conclusion.  Likewise, if you are in a highly religious school, some of your instructors might appreciate an interesting scriptural quotation in your introduction or conclusion--again, though, only if they are highly applicable.  Ask the teacher before trying it!  But whether you use famous quotations or scripture, never let them replace scholarly or factual quotations and paraphrases.  What scholars and researchers have said--not famous quotations or famous scripture--that will prove your points in a scholarly, collegiate way.

If in doubt, you should follow one of two solutions.  Either don't use scripture or famous quotations, or ask your instructor first.


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Taking Notes

Taking notes is a highly efficient timesaver when working with resources.  You may not want or need to take notes on the content of what you read.  However, it is very important to take notes for your quotatations, paraphrases, and resource list in your paper! 

First, be sure to write down all quotations that you might use.  Be absolutely sure to add quotation marks (" ") to them in your notes  so that you know they are direct quotes: you must be absolutely sure to use quotation marks around any such direct quote in your research paper. 

You also need to be sure to mark your sentences in which you write down--in your own words--an idea from any source.  This is because even if you are writing an idea in your own words, you are using someone else's idea.  As a result, you must give that author credit!  This is called "paraphrasing."

Both quotation marks and paraphrasing notes will save you time when you write the paper. To not give credit using quotation marks or an author's name for the author's ideas is known universally in colleges and universities as "plagiarism."  You want to completely avoid it. 

In addition, your notes should always include enough bibliographical information--author's name, title, source, publisher, date, etc.--that you won't have to look it up again.  One fast way to do this sometimes is to simply make a quick printout or xerox copy of the title page, the web address, or other such information.  Be sure you have copied enough for your bibliography and paper--including the page numbers of the article and of the individual quotations or paraphrased ideas--so that you won't have to go look it up again online or in the library.  If you are working with a web page, sometimes the easiest method is to simply copy the entire article or page.  Doing this also allows for more flexibility: you can wait until later to decide which words to quote or paraphrase.


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Searching Documents by Skimming 

"Skimming" a text means looking at it briefly: learning what is in the text by looking at its main parts, but not every word.  Why is skimming helpful in research?  There are huge numbers of resources online and in print.  Only a few of them may be useful to you.  And within any one long source--whether it is a book or an article--you don't need to see and understand all of it to find it useful to support your paper's points. 

You should, however, first be sure that your instructor finds your skimming acceptable.  In some courses and assignments, an instructor very clearly expects you to read all of the reading assignments.  If your research resources must come from those required readings, then you should not use skimming: you should know the material well.  If this is the case, but you still find yourself short of time, you may need to read the material faster.  If so, you may want to try the techniques discussed in "Speed Reading" in the chapter in this textbook called "How to Read Texts."

However, if skimming is acceptable to your instructor for looking at resources that are not required reading, then you might want to use skimming techniques.  When skimming, the most you need is to understand is what the overall source is about, and what quotations and paraphrased ideas you can draw from it.

To find out what the overall source is about, simply read the introductory and concluding paragraphs.  or in a book-length work, skim the introductory and concluding chapters, and carefully read the first and last one to three paragraphs in both of these introductory and concluding chapters. 

Once you know what the work is about, you have a sense of the basic point of view of the author.  You may then want to skim the rest of the source for information related to your paper's subject.  When you find a possibly useful bit of information, mark it or copy it so that you do not have to search for it again.  Then continue skimming. 

In any one source, you often can work more efficiently if you complete your skimming of it first, taking notes as you go.  Wait until you are done skimming it before making further use of its information.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that as you skim, your mind is focusing intensely on looking for information, and often you are better not to break that concentrated focus while you still have it.  You may lose it more quickly if you break it repeatedly.  The second reason is that often, when you are skimming a source, the first or even the third or fourth mention of information you might use is not the best mention of it: your best quotation or paraphrase may come from later in the source.  For this reason, it is wise to simply mark the places of possible use, then continue skimming to the end.  Some people find, after finishing with skimming one source, that a brief rest period or change of pace helps their mental concentration, so they move on either to immediately adding the quotations and paraphrases they wnat to use to their paper, or they find something else to do before skimming a new source. 

For more on skimming, see "Skim Reading" in the chapter in this textbook called "How to Read Texts."


Conclusion: Why Worry about These Issues?

The quick and simple answer to this question is that they all can save you time and improve your grade.  The lessons you learn and actually take the time to practice now, in college, also will be very useful to you in succeeding in your chosen profession.  Whether you will have to write formal research papers or not in your profession, you most likely will, in fact, have to research.  There are so many required research activities in the professional world--from researching a potential staff member to finding out more about an important product, process, or company--that research is a highly important skill in the professions.  what you learn now, you will remember in your future profession.


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 36. What Is "Research"?

 37. Research Process

 38. Choosing Resources

 39. Developing the Paper

 40. Quoting/Paraphrasing

 41. Avoiding Plagiarism

 42. Critical Thinking



MLA Ppr. Examples:
   Dialogic Args.
   Thesis Args.

APA Ppr. Examples:
   Case Studies
   Mag. Article


 Related Links in

  Examples of Several
  Bibliography Styles

  12. Types of Papers


  14. Online Readings

  16. Research Writing

  17. Citation & Documentation

  18. References & Resources

  19. Visual/Multimodal Design

  20. Major/Work Writing


Updated 1 Aug. 2013

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1st through 5th Editions:: Writing for School & Work, 1984-1998;, 1998-2012.
6th Edition: 8-1-12, rev. 8-1-13.  Text, design, and photos copyright 2002-12 by R. Jewell or as noted.
Permission is hereby granted for nonprofit educational copying and use without a written request.
Images courtesy of Barry's Clip Art, Clip Art Warehouse, The Clip Art Universe, Clipart Collection, MS Clip Art Gallery and Design Gallery Live, School Discovery, and Web Clip Art
Click here to contact the author: Richard Jewell.  Questions and suggestions are welcome.