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Research Tutorials

Knowing What You're Looking At

There are so many different kinds of sources in the world, varying not just in quality but in goals, styles, disciplines, and norms. Unfortunately, much of that information goes unstated, leaving it to you to sort out what's what. Understanding what counts as high quality work in a given discipline, publication type, or genre can take a lot of time, but this section will provide you with an initial roadmap to help you through the process.

Key Points to Remember:

Your first question should always be: What is kind of source is this?

Is it a peer-reviewed article? A magazine exposé? An opinion piece in a newspaper? A blog post? Graffiti? A love letter? Just identifying what kind of source something is can tell you a lot about its purpose, its uses, and the norms it is conforming to--or bucking. More to the point, identifying what a source is will help you understand whether you can/should use it in your assignment.

There is high-quality work in (almost) every genre.

The types of sources a scholar or professional--including your professor--will be most accepting or encouraging of you using in your paper depends not just on source quality but also on the kinds of work that are a standard in their field. That standard varies from professor to professor, and standards are always contested and changing. Still, your professor not accepting the use of a newspaper article as a source in your paper has less to do with the overall quality of that article and more to do with the fact that for many areas of research, peer-reviewed scholarly articles are the norm.

Telling the difference between kinds of articles can get very confusing. This chart can help you sort out which is which.

Remember: These are general categories that most publications will conform to, but sometimes publishers will surprise you. When in doubt, check out the individual publication on the internet to get further details.

  Scholarly Journals Newspapers Popular Magazines Trade Journals


San Francisco Chronicle

Domus Magazine

Communication Arts Magazine


Original research; experiments, case-studies, literature reviews;

In-depth analyses of issues in the field;

Articles often include abstract, method, discussion, tables, conclusion, and bibliography

Current events and news that may be local, regional, national or international; 

Ads, editorials, opinion pieces;

Primary source for information on events;

Secondary account of someone else's research that may include opinion

Current events and news that may be national or international; 

General information with purpose to entertain or inform;

Analyses of popular culture;

Primary source for interviews;

Secondary account of someone else's research that may include opinion

Current news, trends, or products in an industry or professional organization;

Statistics, forecasts, employment and career information


4000 to 7000 words in length

500 to 1000 words in length 2500 to 4000 words in length 2500 to 4000 words in length
Language / Tone

Academic, technical jargon that uses the language of the discipline;

Requires subject expertise

Written for a general audience;

Understandable language

Written for a general audience; 

Understandable language

Specialized jargon or terminology of the field;

Written for practitioners/professionals

Authors Researchers, scholars, professors, etc. Journalists or staff writers Journalists or staff writers Practitioners in the field, industry professionals, or journalists with subject expertise
Citations References, footnotes or bibliographies are always included with a full list of complete citations Rarely cite sources in full, will instead hyperlink to source of original research Rarely cite sources in full, will instead hyperlink to source of original research References are rarely included, will instead hyperlink to source of original research
Editors Journal's editorial board, or if peer-reviewed, external scholars in the same field Work for the publishers, who may or may not employ fact-checkers and copy-editors Work for the publishers, who may or may not employ fact-checkers and copy-editors Work for the publishers
Publishers Universities, scholarly presses, or academic organizations Commercial publishers Commercial publishers Commercial publishers or trade and professional organizations
Example Databases Subject Databases like Nursing & Allied Health Source, PsycARTICLES Newspaper Source Academic Search Premier, Proquest Research Library  Business Source Complete

From an academic perspective, the key question you want to answer when investigating a book is:

Who published it?

Answering this can provide you with a starting point on the genre of a given book. However, it isn't as precise as you might think when it comes to locating scholarly work, as many different kinds of publishers put out scholarly books:

  • University Presses: These publishers are affiliated with a university and considered to be highly reputable. Examples include Northwestern University Press and Oxford University Press.
  • Commercial Publishers: Includes major publishers like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Macmillan, as well as their numerous subsidiaries.
  • Professional or Trade Associations, Research Centers, or Institutions: Organizations that publish materials written by experts in a field or subject, such as American Philosophical Society, American Management Association, or International Food Policy Research Institute.
  • Government (International, US, State or Local): Includes entities like the World Health Organization, U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), Illinois State Board of Education, City of Evanston.

Since many publishers put out books aimed at a range of audiences--including scholars and the general reader--it's important to consider a few other factors when determining whether a book is scholarly enough to be a quality source:

Authors: Look for background information about the author, such as educational experience, previously published research, or whether an author has been cited in other research. You can often find biographical details and affiliations for the author in the book itself. 

Bibliographies: Look for a bibliography in your book or look for your book in a bibliography. Scholarly, well-researched books will include bibliographies or lists of consulted source materials used.

Book Reviews: Has the book been reviewed in scholarly journals? Have reviews appeared in other magazines or major newspapers, with scholars or cultural critics writing the reviews?

Portions of the above content is adapted from Colorado State University Library's page "How to Evaluate Books."


Government agencies, nonprofits, think tanks, and others will produce reports and research of various kinds that is often made available on the open internet. This research is often produced on hot-button issues, and therefore can be great sources of timely information or useful overviews. Some of this work is even-handed and excellent; some is less so. As always, it is important to consider the source for their agendas and biases and to look closely at the methodologies used in producing the study. And as always, look at bibliographies not just to evaluate--they can lead you to other great sources!


Blog Posts and Newsletters

With the rise of sites like Medium and Substack, we've seen a resurgence of blogging as a venue for serious discussion among scholars and journalists. However, the quality of work varies widely and undergoes no editorial oversight, and the high production values of many of these websites can add a veneer of reputability to highly partisan and/or poor quality work. Given these potential concerns, it's important to approach using and citing these sources with a great deal of caution. Investigate the author and claims the source makes using the evaluation techniques discussed below.


Theses and Dissertations

Theses and dissertations represent the culminating work in a scholar's graduate program. As such, they are the result of years of intensive research under the supervision of other scholars. However, as with other source types, quality can vary widely depending on numerous factors. In general, these may not be the best sources to center your writing around, but they can be useful supplementary citations to a fleshed out project. Dissertations or theses can be especially useful for their bibliographies. Graduate students are generally required to do an extensive review of literature on their topic, and this can be an excellent guide to a wide range of sources. (The HNU Library has dissertation/thesis databases, but you may also find them on the open internet.)

How to Read a Scholarly Article (Efficiently)

Reading scholarly articles can be intimidating and time-consuming, so learning how to do so efficiently can save you a lot of work. As this video illustrates, learning the parts of a scholarly article, purposefully skimming it, and then reading it strategically can help you separate what's relevant from what isn't and increase your comprehension of the article's argument and evidence.

Critically Evaluating Sources

Learning how to critically evaluate sources takes time. It means not just developing skills in critical thinking, but also developing knowledge of the disciplines and genres you're working with. However, there are tools that can help guide your thinking, centering around:

  • Questions to Ask

  • Methods for Answering those Questions

  • A Reflective Habit to Develop

You can download a PDF of the images on the tabs by clicking on the link below.

These questions can guide your evaluation process when you're encountering a source, but they're not a simple checklist to be followed. Above all, use them as a starting point for your own critical inquiry.

Asking the right questions makes for a good starting point, but you have to use the right techniques to get complete answers to those questions. You need to adopt the approach of a fact-checker, and for this process, the internet is your best friend. Each of these methods will engage your searching skills, both on the open internet and within library databases. Want more help on how to use these techniques? Take a look at Mike Caulfield's Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, available for free here.

One of the most difficult and most important skills you can develop is that of being a self-critical researcher. Developing the habit of self-reflection by asking yourself these questions as you research will help you deepen your own criticality as you engage with sources.

Using Article Introductions

Introductions serve different purposes depending on the genre of writing. Magazine articles or personal essays often start with a "hook" that sets the scene, creates tension, or engages the reader's thoughts and emotions. Academic essays tend to rely on a different kind of hook, one that situates that author's work in relation to the sources, ideas, and scholarship that have paved the way for their own work, or that they are responding to or critiquing.

Scholars John Swales and Christine Feak have mapped out a pattern such introductions tend to follow, one that you can use to get a quick sense of an article's argument and place in the scholarly conversation. An adaptation of Swales and Feak's map, which is based on three "moves," is shown below. Click on each tab for more detail and examples.

Move 1: Setting the Scene, Move 2: Describing the Problem, Move 3: Entering the Conversation

Adapted from Swales and Feak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students

Move 1: Setting the Scene, Step 1: Claiming centrality, and/or Step 2: Making topic generalization(s), and/or Step 3: Reviewing previous research

The first move, Setting the Scene, is about laying out the broad strokes of a topic, its importance within the discipline a scholar is working within (psychology, biology, business, etc.), and/or key pieces of research that form the background to their particular focus.

Here's an example from the article "Exploring Curation as a Core Competency in Digital and Media Literacy Education" by Paul Mihailidis and James N. Cohen:

                            Highlighted portion of example text: Introduction In today's hypermedia landscape, youth and young adults are increasingly using social media platforms, online aggregators and mobile applications for daily information use. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 'Eight- to eighteen-year-olds spend more time with media than in any other activity besides (maybe) sleeping-an average of more than 71⁄2 hours a day, 7 days a week.' The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism Center's (2012) annual State of the Media report found information consumption habits migrating significantly towards digital platforms. In this context, how students learn to be analytical, inquiring, and critical thinkers encompasses a new set of pedagogical approaches.

By pointing to broad statistics about digital media use, Mihailidis and Cohen provide the broad context in which they are working and point to the importance of focusing on the topic. The final sentence situates their focus as being in the educational field, as shown by the use of phrases like " students learn..." and "...pedagogical approaches..." (i.e., methods used in teaching). As readers, we now have a bit more grounding and know the general areas the authors will be discussing.

Move 2: Describing the Problem, Step 1A: Counter-claiming, or Step 1B: Identifying a gap, or Step 1C: Raising questions, or Step 1D: Continuing a tradition

Having created a background to work with, scholars then turn to the second move of Describing the Problem, where they zero in on the whats and whys of the topic that they're focusing on.

What this looks like can vary: scholars may discuss gaps in research or unanswered questions they want to address in their writing, or they may point to previous work their own work is building on, or they may suggest that there may be flaws in the existing research they've already outlined when Setting the Scene. They may not yet discussing precisely how they're going to address the problem they're defining, but they're preparing the ground to do so.

Mihailidis and Cohen's example is again illustrative:

Highlighted portion of example text: In her book Digital and Media Literacy (2011), Renee Hobbs stresses the competencies needed to prepare students for lives of constant technological evolution. She finds it ever more necessary for students of a digital age to harness human curiosity, the ability to listen, and seek diverse knowledge in the context of integrated information spaces, constant sharing, public identities, and low barriers to production (Hobbs 2011). One of the largest impacts of the Internet today is in the integration of various information types (news, entertainment, personal communication) and mediums (television, radio, print) into aggregated spaces. Search engines and social networks have replaced specific channels, shows, and even web sites as the predominant places youth go for information. Many-to-many communication platforms that allow for the large-scale reach of media messages have cultivated a vast information landscape that lacks basic organizational structure. The result is that students not only have access to seemingly endless amounts of information, but also personalize content and reorganize it in a fashion that best allows them to make sense of a topic, and to share it with peers (Lessig 2008). Teachers at all levels of education must be prepared to negotiate the digital realities of their students as they design learning experiences around critical inquiry, analysis, and evaluation. Indeed, educators today have a certain responsibility to focus student skills and experiences in an exercise of participation with the surrounding media (Jenkins et al. 2009).

So, what kind of problem are they framing here? They positively cite Hobbs's work on the sets of skills students need to thrive in a digital world, then focus specifically on the skill of navigating the personalized way the internet allows people to aggregate content into uniquely curated collections of information. In this sense, they build on Hobbs's work but also identify a potential gap to be filled by focusing on curation as an important competency teachers need to be prepared to cover. We now know what Mihailidis and Cohen will be focusing on.

Having identified the niche of a subject they're covering, scholars then turn to Entering the Conversation. This final move entails explaining the particulars of their paper, including (as applicable) a thesis and outline of an argument, a hypothesis and findings, and/or the general structure of the essay. Again, the standards of what is included will vary depending on the stylistic conventions of the discipline they're writing in.

Let's return one last time to Mihailidis and Cohen:

Highlighted portion of example text: This paper explores the concept of curation as a pedagogical tool to embolden critical inquiry and engagement in a digital age. Specifically, the online digital curation tool Storify is utilized to present a theoretical justification for using curation to increase digital and media literacy, and six practical applications for curation pedagogy to teach about critical thinking, analysis, and engagement online. Storify allows for a student-driven, creation-driven and multimedia- driven approach to learning that enables students to engage and participate directly with multimedia content. This paper seeks to encourage instructors, particularly on secondary and tertiary education levels, to bridge the gap between informal learning outside of the classroom with formal learning to create a more dynamic place for students to advance critical inquiry, dialogue, and engagement through new forms of content creation, curation, and dissemination.

Mihailidis and Cohen now lay out that they will intervene in this scholarly conversation by discussing the specific example of one piece of online software and the ways it can be used as an instructional tool. In doing so, they outline the structure of the paper as well as point to the larger goals behind their choice to focus on this subject, which we would expect to find them discussing in the paper's conclusion.