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Research & Writing Help

Types of Sources

Books, journals and newspapers all offer different research advantages. Think about your topic and how each type of source can help your project. Regardless of the type of source you use, evaluating its credibility is essential. “Vetting” the information is critical.

  • Books are in-depth works and the information isn't always current as books can take over a year to be published. However, the information can still be relevant depending on your topic and how you’re using the information (and what aspect of the information). For instance, Norton’s (2013) book about students’ identities in second language learning is still relevant today as her work prompted a critical shift in how second language learning was researched and prompted shifts in how languages were taught. 

  • Journals contain long, detailed articles that are often on a specific topic.There are two main types of articles: conceptual articles and empirical articles. 

    • In conceptual articles, authors discuss how a concept, theory, or approach can be used in a different way. For example, Trinh (2024)  wrote a conceptual feature article about including queer studies and queer allyship in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) to shift English teaching practices. Journals can be published weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly, making the information much more current.

    • Empirical articles present findings from research studies. For example, Ulla and Paiz (2024) present findings from a study about incorporating queer perspectives in English language teaching. 

  • Newspapers contain shorter articles about local, national, or international news. They are published daily or weekly, so the content is very current.

Journals and magazines are periodicals (publications that come out regularly), but can greatly differ in audience, authors, purpose, length, and content. Due to these factors, the type and depth of information also vary significantly.

Magazines contain articles on a broad range of general interest topics written by journalists, freelancers, or hired staff writers and are intended for the general public. Since these are often written for general readers for leisure purposes, the articles are often shorter and not as in-depth as articles written for academic audiences. 

Popular Magazines in Thorndike Library

  • Downeast Magazine
  • The Economist
  • Time

Journals contain scholarly articles focused on specific disciplines or fields of study written by researchers, professors and other experts in specific subject areas intended for an academic, scholarly audience. A peer-reviewed journal contains articles that are reviewed by experts in the field before the journal is published. How do you know if a journal is peer-reviewed? Things to consider or look for:

  • Print journals will sometimes indicate inside the front cover if the journal is peer-reviewed. Common publishers that own multiple journals include Elsevier, Wiley, De Gruyter, SAGE, Springer, Taylor & Francis. 
  • Databases that provide access to scholarly journal articles often have filters that allow you to search for just peer-reviewed articles.
  • When in doubt, go to the journal's homepage and look for instructions for authors.  This will generally indicate if the articles are peer-reviewed prior to publication.

Examples of Journals from various fields:

  • American Journal of Botany
  • Daedalus: proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Environmental Ethics
  • Ecological Applications
  • Nature
  • International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
  • Qualitative Research
  • TESOL Journal
  • College Composition and Communication
  • Discourse & Society


There are two types of sources: primary and secondary sources. Note that it is the function of the source that determines whether it’s a primary or secondary source. Interviews and government documents are typically categorized as primary sources due to the first-hand account or representation of a particular topic. This is often contrasted with secondary sources, such as articles and books, that typically interpret and analyze primary sources. 

However, it is your study that determines whether a source serves a primary or secondary function. This means that depending on what study seeks to do, secondary sources can function as primary sources too. For instance, textbook analysis is a subfield of language studies. When conducting textbook analyses, researchers examine discourses and ideologies in language learning materials through the texts and visuals that are used (e.g., Wong, J. (2002). Applying conversation analysis in applied linguistics: Evaluating dialogue in English as a second language textbooks. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 40(1), 37-60).

Another area of language studies include discourse analytical examinations of rhetorical moves in and across discipline specific articles to understand how scholars write (e.g., Dong, J., & Lu, X. (2020). Promoting discipline-specific genre competence with corpus-based genre analysis activities. English for Specific Purposes, 58, 138-154).

Primary sources are typically first-hand records of an event/topic that directly relate to that event/topic.

  • Diaries, memoirs, autobiographies
  • Letters and correspondence 
  • Interviews, speeches, oral histories, personal narratives
  • Legal documents (marriage licenses, birth certificates, contracts)
  • Archaeological artifacts
  • Scientific data
  • Artwork (photographs, music, painting, literature, sculpture)
  • Official government documents and reports

Secondary sources are works that interpret and analyze primary sources. 

  • Articles
  • Biographies
  • Books
  • Encyclopedias
  • Reports
  • Reviews
  • Textbooks

A database is information organized in a way that can be searched and retrieved by a computer. Not all research databases are the same. It is important to know what information the database you are searching can provide. 

Some things to consider:

  • Does the database provide information on a specialized topic or is it multidisciplinary?
  • What are the dates of coverage of the database?
  • ​​​​​​​Does the database provide full text articles, is it just an index (i.e. only gives you bibliographic information about journal articles), or does it both – some articles in full text  and some articles as only  bibliographic information?

In our library's A-Z Databases list we provide information about each database that helps answer these questions. 

Why Do I Have to Cite Sources?

Citing is not a "chore" or busywork. Citations serve several purposes and are part of spoken and written communication practices that are central to doing academic work. One primary function is to give credit to the authors to avoid plagiarism, but it also serves many other important purposes, such as: 

  1. Opening a dialogue - When you cite where you got your information, you contribute to the discussion and display other scholars’ ideas.

  2. Providing for others - Citing allows readers to explore their interests and investigate your sources to draw their own conclusions. 

  3. Establishing credibility - Citing demonstrates that you did your research and aren't falsifying information, it builds credibility in your argument.

How Do I Use Sources?

How do I use sources?

There are three primary ways to incorporate information from other sources: quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing. Regardless of the method you use, all require in-text citations as well as reference/works cited pages (they have different names depending on the style guide). Think strategically about which method you want to use and why. Do you want to foreground a critical finding from a highly influential research study? Do you want to summarize the work of other scholars to show what's been done in the past? Do you want to provide contextual information? Each method serves a different rhetorical purpose:

  1. Quoting - Use quotes from the original text if you think the exact wording is critical to your pieces. Note that frequent use of quotes and using very long quotes can obscure your voice. 

  2. Paraphrasing - You can paraphrase a paragraph or two to capture the main idea or argument(s).

  3. Summarizing - This method condenses larger amounts of information from a source into a shorter synthesis. This requires paraphrasing to highlight the main point(s) and overall message.


Plagiarism is serious misconduct in academia and professional settings and has grave consequences for those involved. Plagiarism can be both intentional (deliberately omitting or misconstruing information) and unintentional (forgetting to correct citations or missing a citation). Both new and experienced researchers can plagiarize, therefore it’s important to understand citing practices.

For example, if you are a student, consequences can include failing grades on assignments or classes, academic probation, and expulsion. For researchers in academic institutions and in corporate settings (such as a UX researcher for a bank or corporation), consequences can result in loss of credibility, legal consequences, reprimand, and job loss. 

It is important to recognize that standards and conventions for citing sources vary depending on the disciplines. There are also variations within a discipline. Journals have their own standards as well. 

At COA, citation practices for courses are determined by the instructor. The college doesn’t have an official policy regarding the use of generative AI and Large Language Models (LLMs), but a general rule is that it cannot be used to create work for you. Talk to your instructors regarding their individual policies. If, however, AI was used, it must be properly acknowledged for transparency and to avoid plagiarism. More information can be found here regarding citations if AI was used. 

Are My Sources Credible?

Anyone can write and publish anything. From an ethical perspective, it's incredibly important to examine information to avoid spreading incorrect information. Ask yourself these questions when evaluating the credibility of sources,:

  1. Who is the author or publisher? Know who produced and distributed the source you have. Read about their history, values, purpose, and what they do. You can also check the board of directors and other members listed. Pay attention to what organizations they support and are affiliated with.  This will give you good insights into their trustworthiness and if they have hidden agendas. 

  2. What is the purpose of the source? Why was this text created? To inform? To persuade? To mislead or manipulate people and information? To further a specific agenda for personal gain?

  3. Who is the audience? Knowing who the source was written for can help you evaluate its credibility. Is the author publisher targeting a particular group of people? A broader audience?

  4. What do other sources say about the same topic? Cross-checking and fact-checking are critical. Comparing how others talk about the same topic can help you identify nuances in the discourse. If there are discrepancies between sources, identify why.

  5. What type of discourse is used? Pay attention to aspects of language that raise red flags: strong emotional appeals, lack of references to trusted sources, lack of complexity and nuance, and statements grounded in personal opinions and anecdotes that are presented as factual information derived from science and empirical studies and/or used to generate universal truths to speak for everyone. This doesn’t mean that a personal account from interviews or autoethnographies aren’t credible, but all texts need to be treated critically as other people’s voices can be used in dishonest ways.

Finding Existing Literature on Your Topic

When conducting research, you need to know what has or hasn’t been said/written by others. Knowing what other scholars have found is important because it builds your knowledge of your topic:  the conversations, debates, and issues, and helps you understand the gaps and how you can contribute to the topic. Not all scholars agree on everything, nor do they define key terms in the same way. It’s important to know about these differences so that you as the researcher can situate your project in these conversations. For instance, what has or hasn’t been done in the past? There can be various kinds of gaps in scholarship, including:

  • Types of data and methodological approach  

    • What methods are used? What methods are not used? What alternative approaches can be used individually or combined? What might we learn if we use an underused method or combine two or more approaches? 

  • The population, region, and/or social context of research

    • Was only one geographic place focused on? Or, what would the research look like when considered in a different social group, community, or geographical context?

  • Types of research questions

    • Have researchers only asked "how" but not "why"?

To locate previous studies, collect research from the following sources:

For example, if you are interested in how migration shapes children's bilingual development, you might want to look for articles in journals that publish work in language learning, literacy, migration, and education. You might want to focus on learning in formal or informal settings (or both to compare them depending on the scope of your project).

Search Strategies

The best search terms represent keywords in your research project. What are keywords? Significant words or terms that represent essential concepts of your research questions. For example:

Research question: How do pets enrich the lives of people?

Keywords: pets, people, enrich


It is helpful to think of synonyms and other variations of your keywords to navigate search results. Synonyms can be specific while others are broad. For example:

pets: animals (broad), dogs, cats, goldfish (specific)

people: humans, society, folks (broad), women, men, children, nonbinary, parents (specific)

enrich: positive impact or affect 

Troubleshooting when you can't find results you want

Let's say you are doing research on folktales from Thailand. The key words would be folktales and Thailand. However, our online catalog Thorncat will not yield any search results. Does this mean there is nothing available? No!

While we do not specifically have books about folktales in Thailand, we do have books about folktales from around the world. If you enter the search terms folktales and world, you get a number of results. You could select a book and look in the index or table of contents to see if Thailand is listed. Other search terms you might consider are tales and stories (instead of folktales) and global, multicultural, transnational, or international.

Note: If you find a source you want but it’s not available through Thorndike, you can make an ILL request, which researchers do all the time. You can contact the library for further details.

Phrase Searching
Most databases allow for phrase searching. This means you can put quotes around a single concept to get results that have that particular phrase. For example, searching "free will" will bring back results that have the two words together as a phrase rather than results that have free somewhere in the record and will somewhere in the record. Other examples of single concepts that would be good to search as a phrase are "New England", "climate change", and "organic gardening".

Truncation Symbols
Truncation or wildcard searching allows users to search variants of a word by adding an asterisk (*). Example: 

A search on wood* will retrieve results with the for wood, woods, wooden, woodsman, and woodpecker.