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A Guide To...The Research Process

This guide will walk through the stages of conducting college research with information about how library resources can help you in your research.

Types of Sources

Scholarly Sources

A scholarly or peer-reviewed article has been written by an expert in the subject (ex., a professor or other researcher), and has been reviewed and approved by a group of other experts (their peers). It is written for an academic audience and will usually present original research in a specific field.


Popular Sources

popular article is written for a wider, more general audience, and may provide a more broad overview of a topic. The author is not necessarily an expert in the specific subject and is usually a general journalist or freelance writer. These articles do not go through peer review and may be edited by a single editor or editorial board.

Identifying Scholarly and Popular Sources

Use this chart to help you identify whether a source is scholarly or popular.

  Scholarly Sources Popular Sources
Author Written by scholars or experts in the field for other scholars (including students) and experts Written by journalists or freelance writers for a general audience
Writing Style Language is more technical and complex, assumes the audience is familiar with key concepts and terms in the field Language is more general and simple, may explain key concepts and terms, does not assume the reader already has knowledge about the subject
Review/Editing Process Reviewed by experts or peer-reviewed Reviewed by general editors
Subject Matter Often report original research in a specific field of study Often discuss current events and/or entertaining topics. One issue might cover many subject areas.
Illustrations Often have charts and graphs showing data from a study Often have colorful photographs
Advertising Have little or no advertising. Ads are typically for related journals, books, and conferences in the scholarly field. Have advertising, including for products and services that are unrelated to the article topic or field
Citations Have both in-text citations and a works cited list, reference list, or bibliography at the end of the article Do not include citations or include few citations. Citations may be links to external sources and not in a formal citation style.

Primary Sources

Note: This section is about primary sources used in humanities fields. The sciences use the term "primary research" to talk about reports of original research. See the next tab for more information about primary research sources in the sciences.

You might be asked to incorporate primary source material in your research. A primary source is a first-hand witness to a historical event or period, created at that point in history. This can include articles, interviews, photographs, memoirs, correspondence, diaries, government documents, and more. Primary sources can give valuable insight into what was happening at a specific point in history as it happened, rather than looking at it through a present day lens.

Often when people think of primary sources, they think of old historical documents, but primary sources are being created every day! Social media posts can be primary sources that tell you what people are thinking or doing as they witness an event. Newspaper articles, personal journals, blogs, and any content people create that shows their first hand experience of a moment in time can be considered primary sources.

You can find detailed information about finding and using primary sources in our Primary Source Guide.

Secondary Sources

secondary source is a source that was created after an event took place by someone who did not experience it firsthand. They provide descriptions, explanations, or analyses of the event that took place. This includes books, biographies, articles, documentaries, and more. A secondary source can include citations and references to primary sources but will build off those sources to provide new analysis or information. 

Primary vs. Secondary Sources - Minnesota Historical Society

Check out this video from the Minnesota Historical Society to learn more about primary and secondary sources.

Primary Research Articles - Sciences

In the sciences, primary research articles (also called empirical or original research) are articles where the authors of the article are the ones who conducted the study or research they are writing about. These are scholarly articles published in an academic journal that focus on one specific study conducted by the authors. They follow a common format that shows the study materials, methods, results, and discussion. Like scholarly articles in other fields, these are aimed at experts and academics who have an existing knowledge of the topic and will use technical language to convey information.

Review Articles - Sciences

Review or secondary articles are scholarly articles that report on what other researchers have done. The authors of the article did not conduct the research they are writing about but may synthesize or compare multiple studies to explore their findings. Review articles can provide an overview of what types of studies and research have been done in a certain field or subject area. All of the studies are cited, so you can look in the bibliography to find the primary research articles the authors refer to.

For more information about types of articles in the sciences, visit our Biology Research Guide.

Six Questions

Six Questions for Evaluating Sources

When you're looking at a source and deciding if it's right for your research, ask yourself the six questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.


Who is the author?

Look for more information about the author. Find out their qualifications and experience to determine if they are a credible expert on the topic. Be wary of sources where you cannot identify an author or creator.


What type of source is it?

Think about what type of source you're looking at - is it a research paper? An entertainment piece? An opinion essay? Consider if it is scholarly or popular and what the format tells you about the source. 

When was it published?

Consider how recent and/or timely the information is and how recent you need information to be for your topic. In some subjects, new information develops very quickly and sources that are more than a few years old may already be outdated. In other subjects, information may move more slowly.


Where did you find the source?

Look at where the source was published or shared. See what you can find out about the publisher and their editorial process (Is it peer reviewed? Edited by one general editor? Not edited at all?). Be on the lookout for conflicts of interest and potential bias in publishing. Consider if it is a scholarly publisher, a government source, an educational institution, or an informal source like a blog.


Why was this written and published?

Think about the purpose of the source and what it is trying to accomplish. Is the source trying to inform you of new information? Is it trying to persuade you to do something or to have a certain point of view? Is it an ad trying to sell you something? Is it entertainment?


How did the author/creator find their information?                                                                                  

If the source is an original research study, look at the methods and conclusions to learn about how the study was conducted and what they learned from it. If the author cites their sources, see if you can find the original source to verify the information.

Be cautious using sources that do not contain citations or do not show how they got their information.


The Information Lifecycle

The Information Lifecycle

Different types of sources go through different publishing cycles. Some sources, like online news sources and social media, may be available immediately after an event. Others, like print newspapers and magazines, may take up to a few weeks. Scholarly sources like academic journal articles can take multiple years to publish, while books take even longer. We call this the information lifecycle.

Information lifecycle infographic. Day of event: Social media, blogs, online news, 24/7 news. Days/Weeks later: Newspapers, TV news, radio/podcasts. Weeks/Months Later: Magazines, newspapers, TV news, radio/podcasts. 1-2 Years Later: Scholarly journals, academic studies, books. 2+ Years Later: Encyclopedias, reference books, scholarly journals.