Skip to main content

Research Paper: A step-by-step guide: 4. Appropriate Sources

Types of Sources

Sources of information can be classified into three broad categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources are first-hand information or original objects (such as autobiographies, diaries, letters, interviews, historical records & documents, eyewitness accounts, photos, etc.)

Secondary sources are sources that analyze, interpret, or summarize (such as biographies, critical analyses, literary criticism, interpretations, books or articles written by non-participants, reviews of books, film, or art work, etc.)

Tertiary sources are sources that consolidate primary and secondary sources to provide background information on a topic. They provide no new information and are commonly used as reference and to identify primary or secondary sources (such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, guidebooks, timelines, textbooks, directories, almanac, etc.)

(Click on the tab above to learn different types of sources by publication format.)


Information is everywhere. But you should use reliable sources for your papers. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of different sources can help you choose the most appropriate and useful material for your research. Here are some common sources:

Books & eBooks - covers any topic, good for comprehensive or historical information.

Journals - collection of articles written by scholars for academic users; covers very specific topics for scholarly research. Articles in peer-reviewed journals are of high quality as they were recommended by independent scholars. Scholarly journals are essentials sources for research papers. We will learn more about this in the next session.

Magazines - up-to-date information on general topics, information or opinions about popular culture and current events.

Newspapers - great source for current, international, national, and local events; includes experts and public opinions; but lacking in-depth analysis and studies.

Encyclopedias - general and subject encyclopedias are great for background information on a topic; subject encyclopedias have in-depth entries from the perspectives of a specific subject.

Web Resources- covers any topic; contains multimedia formats (text, sound, images, videos); great for up-to-the-minute information on current events and quick search for information. Quality and reliability of information varies greatly. Information is unstable as it can be changed and pulled out without notice. For more reliable information, try to limit your search to Web sites from governments (.gov) and educational institutes (.edu),

Research Databases - collections of information in digital format, covers a good variety of subjects for research; includes full-text scholarly journals, magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias and even books. It is great for research purposes. (Subscribed by the library, need to log in for access.)

Other Sources - maps, census, government documents, pamphlets, brochures, court records, films, images, audio recordings, interviews, etc.

Scholarly Journals

A scholarly journal is a publication published by recognized societies or professional associations for a professional or academic audience. Articles in the journal are written by scholars, researchers, experts, or specialists in the field. Here are some other characteristics of a scholarly journal:

  • Authors are identified and their credentials and affiliations are always provided in the document.
  • Authors cite their sources in bibliographies and footnotes.
  • Topics are focused in one academic field or discipline; the articles are usually scholarly research reports and in-depth analysis.
  • Articles use jargon of the discipline.
  • They usually have plain covers, black and white printing, illustrations in the form of charts and graphs, have few or no advertisements.

Most journal articles go through a peer-reviewed or refereed editorial process in which articles have to be approved and recommended by other experts in the field to be published. They are therefore also called peer-reviewed journals. Since not all scholarly journals go through a peer-review process, a scholarly journal is not necessarily a peer-reviewed journal. However, the two terms are often used interchangeably.

Besides peer-reviewed journals, scholarly journals are also called academic journals, scientific journals, refereed journals, or professional journals.

If you want to learn more about scholarly journals and different types of publications (such as popular magazines, Web resources), you can view this "Scholarly Journals, Magazines, Web Resources, and Online Research Databases" handout.


The Butte College Library has scholarly journals in print and in digital formats. Print journals are located on the 1st floor of the main campus library. But we have a much bigger collection of scholarly journals in electronic format in our research databases. Although all the databases are quality sources for academic research, not all of them contain scholarly journals. To find articles from scholarly journals, try EBSCOhost, Proquest Direct, and JSTOR.

Choosing Appropriate Sources

Check your instructor's requirement

Your instructor may require specific sources (e.g. a minimum of 3 scholarly journals, 1 book, and 1 newspaper) or may not accept particular sources, such as Wikipedia, Web resources, etc. Sometimes, your instructor may require that you use primary sources for your research. Make sure the sources you use meet your instructor's requirements.


Choose the most promising sources

Knowing the availability of different sources can help you decide which sources would be best for your research topic. Ask yourself what specific information you want and how much you need. Use the most promising sources for your search. For example:

Information Need Library Resources Web

Browsing and choosing topic ideas

SIRS Knowledge Source;

CQ Researcher ;

Issues & Controversies;


Search for research topic ideas for a specific discipline, e.g. "research topic ideas for psychology"

Background information of a topic
(e.g. bipolar disorder)

Gale Virtual Reference;

Britannica Online;

Books on the topic

Government or related organization websites

A recent event/incident


News website, e.g. CNN, Google News, etc.

Controversial issues; arguments and
development of an issue

Books on the topic;

Proquest; EBSCOhost;

SIRS Knowledge Source;

Issues & Controversies;

CQ Researcher;

related organization websites

scholarly discussion on


Use various sources & tools

Do not limit yourself to a specific kind of search tool (such as Google), or a specific kind of source (such as journal articles). Keep an open mind and explore different search tools and sources.

Keep in mind that you can also use other libraries besides the Butte College Library, such as Butte County Public Library, Chico State University Library, and other online resources from other libraries (Internet Public Libraries, Library of Congress, etc.) You can also borrow books and articles from other libraries through our Interlibrary Loan service.

Start at the Library and ask a librarian

Start your research at the library! The Butte College Library maintains its print and digital collections to support student learning and research. You are more likely to find appropriate resources for your research paper from the library.

If you need any help finding appropriate material for your paper, ask a librarian.