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Writing a Research Paper

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.

More Strategies for Critical Reading

Want to get even more out of your reading process? These techniques, adapted from Harvard librarian Susan Gilroy, can help you read more deeply and critically.

Annotating puts you actively and immediately in a "dialogue” with an author and the issues and ideas you encounter in a written text.

It's also a way to have an ongoing conversation with yourself as you move through the text and to record what that encounter was like for you. Here's how to make your reading thinking-intensive from start to finish:

  • Throw away your highlighter: Highlighting can seem like an active reading strategy, but it can actually distract from the business of learning and dilute your comprehension.  Those bright yellow lines you put on a printed page one day can seem strangely cryptic the next, unless you have a method for remembering why they were important to you at another moment in time.  Pen or pencil will allow you to do more to a text you have to wrestle with.  
  • Mark up the margins of your text with words and phrases: ideas that occur to you, notes about things that seem important to you, reminders of how issues in a text may connect with class discussion or course themes. This kind of interaction keeps you conscious of the reasons you are reading as well as the purposes your instructor has in mind. Later in the term, when you are reviewing for a test or project, your marginalia will be useful memory triggers.
  • Develop your own symbol system: asterisk (*) a key idea, for example, or use an exclamation point (!) for the surprising, absurd, bizarre.  Your personalized set of hieroglyphs allow you to capture the important -- and often fleeting -- insights that occur to you as you're reading.  Like notes in your margins, they'll prove indispensable when you return to a text in search of that  perfect passage to use in a paper, or are preparing for a big exam.  
  • Get in the habit of hearing yourself ask questions: “What does this mean?” “Why is the writer drawing that conclusion?” “Why am I being asked to read this text?” etc.  Write the questions down (in your margins, at the beginning or end of the reading, in a notebook, or elsewhere. They are reminders of the unfinished business you still have with a text: something to ask during class discussion, or to come to terms with on your own, once you’ve had a chance to digest the material further or have done other course reading.

The best way to determine that you’ve really gotten the point is to be able to state it in your own words. Take the information apart, look at its parts, and then try to put it back together again in language that is meaningful to you. 

Outlining the argument of a text is a version of annotating, and can be done quite informally in the margins of the text, unless you prefer the more formal Roman numeral model you may have learned in high school.  Outlining enables you to see the skeleton of an argument: the thesis, the first point and evidence (and so on), through the conclusion. With weighty or difficult readings, that skeleton may not be obvious until you go looking for it.

Summarizing accomplishes something similar, but in sentence and paragraph form, and with the connections between ideas made explicit.

Analyzing adds an evaluative component to the summarizing process—it requires you not just to restate main ideas, but also to test the logic, credibility, and emotional impact of an argument.  In analyzing a text, you reflect upon and decide how effectively (or poorly) its argument has been made.  Questions to ask:

  • What is the writer asserting?
  • What am I being asked to believe or accept? Facts? Opinions? Some mixture?
  • What reasons or evidence does the author supply to convince me? Where is the strongest or most effective evidence the author offers  -- and why is it compelling?
  • Is there any place in the text where the reasoning breaks down?  Are there things that do not make sense,  conclusions that are drawn prematurely, moments where the writer undermines their purposes?

The way language is chosen, used, and positioned in a text can be an important indication of what an author considers crucial and what they expect you to glean from their argument.  

It can also alert you to ideological positions, hidden agendas or biases. Be watching for:

  • Recurring images
  • Repeated words, phrases, types of examples, or illustrations
  • Consistent ways of characterizing people, events, or issue.

Once you’ve finished reading actively and annotating, consider the text from the multiple perspectives.

When you contextualize, you essentially "re-view" a text you've encountered, acknowledging how it is framed by its historical, cultural, material, or intellectual circumstances. Do these factors change, complicate, explain, deepen or otherwise influence how you view a piece? 

Also view the reading through the lens of your own experience. Your understanding of the words on the page and their significance is always shaped by what you have come to know and value from living in a particular time and place.

Set course readings against each other to determine their relationships (hidden or explicit).

  • At what point in the term does this reading come?  Why that point, do you imagine?
  • How does it contribute to the main concepts and themes of the course? 
  • How does it compare (or contrast) to the ideas presented by texts that come before it?  Does it continue a trend, shift direction, or expand the focus of previous readings?
  • How has your thinking been altered by this reading, or how has it affected your response to the issues and themes of the course?