21 How to Find Sources

Shane Abrams; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly

Shane Abrams
Adapted by Liz Delf, Rob Drummond, and Kristy Kelly

Less than one generation ago, the biggest challenge facing research writers like you was tracking down relevant, credible, and useful information. Even the most basic projects required sifting through card catalogs, scrolling through endless microfiche and microfilm slides, and dedicating hours to scouring the stacks of different libraries. But now, there is no dearth of information; indeed, the internet has connected us to more information than any single person could process in an entire lifetime.

Once you have determined which conversation you want to join, it’s time to begin finding sources. Inquiry-based research requires many encounters with a diversity of sources, so the internet serves us well by enabling faster, more expansive access. But while the internet makes it much easier to find those sources, it comes with its own host of challenges. The biggest problems with primarily internet-based research can be boiled down to two issues:

  1. There is too much out there to sift through everything that might be relevant.
  2. There is an increased prominence of unreliable, biased, or simply untrue information.

This chapter focuses on developing strategies and techniques to make your research and research writing processes more efficient, reliable, and meaningful, especially when considering the unique difficulties presented by research writing in the digital age. Specifically, you will learn strategies for discovering, evaluating, and integrating sources.


Research Methods: Discovering Sources

Let’s bust a myth before going any further: there is no such thing as a “good” source.

What makes a source “good” is actually determined by your purpose: how you use the source in your text is most important to determining its value. If you plan to present something as truth—like a fact or statistic—it is wise to use a peer-reviewed journal article (one that has been evaluated by a community of scholars). But if you’re trying to demonstrate a perspective or give evidence, you may not find what you need in a journal.

Table 21.1 An example of position that might need more than scholarly resources
Your position A supporting fact
(something you present as factual)
An example that demonstrates your position
(something that you present as a perspective)
Women are unfairly criticized on social media. A peer-reviewed scholarly article:

Sills, Sophie, et al. “Rape Culture and Social Media: Young Critics and a Feminist Counterpublic.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 16, no. 6, 2016, pp. 935–951.

A popular but clickbaity news site:

Tamplin, Harley. “How You Use Instagram Confirms a Sad Truth about Your Personality, Study Says.Elite Daily, April 3, 2017.

If you want to showcase a diversity of perspectives, you will want to weave together a diversity of sources.

As you discover useful sources, try to expand your usual research process by experimenting with the techniques and resources included in this chapter.

The first and most important determining factor of your research is where you choose to begin. Although there are a great number of credible and useful texts available across different search platforms, I generally encourage my students to begin with two resources:

  1. Their college or university’s library and its website
  2. Google Scholar

These resources are not bulletproof, and you can’t always find what you need through them. However, their general search functionality and the databases from which they draw tend to be more reliable, specific, and professional. It is quite likely that your argument will be better received if it relies on the kind of sources you discover with these tools.

Your Library

Although the following information primarily focuses on making good use of your library’s online tools, one of the most valuable and underutilized resources at your disposal is the librarians themselves. Do you know if your school has research librarians on staff? Research librarians (or reference librarians) are not only well versed in the research process but also passionate about supporting students in their inquiry.

It’s also possible that your library offers research support that you can access remotely: many colleges and universities provide librarian support via instant message/chat or email. Some libraries even make video tutorials and do-it-yourself research tips and tricks.

The first step in learning how your library will support you is to investigate their website. Although I can’t provide specific instruction for the use of your library website—they are all slightly different—I encourage you to spend ten minutes familiarizing yourself with the site, considering the following questions especially:

  • Does the site have an FAQ section, student support, a librarian chat service, or a DIY link in case you have questions?
  • Does the site have an integrated search bar (i.e., a search engine that allows you to search some or all databases and the library catalog simultaneously)?
  • How do you access the “advanced search” function of the library’s search bar?
  • Does your account have a folder or reading list to save sources you find?
  • Is your library a member of a resource-sharing network, like ILLiad or Summit? How do you request a source through this network?
  • Does your library subscribe to multimedia or digital resource services, like video streaming or e-book libraries?
  • Does the site offer any citation management support software, like Mendeley or Zotero?

Most schools pay subscriptions to databases filled with academic works in addition to owning a body of physical texts (books, DVDs, magazines, etc.). Some schools are members of exchange services for physical texts as well (such as Summit or ILLiad), in which case a network of libraries can provide resources to students at your school.

It is worth noting that most library websites use an older form of search technology. You have likely realized that day-to-day search engines like Google will predict what you’re searching for, correct your spelling, and automatically return results that your search terms might not have exactly aligned with. For example, I could Google How many baksetbal players on Jazzz roster, and I would still likely get the results I needed. Most library search engines don’t do this, so you need to be very deliberate with your search terms. Here are some tips:

  • Consider synonyms and jargon that might be more likely to yield results. As you research, you will become more fluent in the language of your subject. Keep track of vocabulary that other scholars use, and revise your search terms based on this context-specific language.
  • Use the Boolean operators ? and * for expanded results:
    • wom?n yields results for woman, women, womyn, and so on
    • medic* yields results for medic, medicine, medication, medicinal, medical, and so on
  • Use the advanced search feature to combine search terms, exclude certain results, limit the search terms’ applicability, and so on.
  • Use the filters (usually on the left or right side of the page) to sort for the kinds of sources you want. For example, if you are looking for academic sources, you can filter for “peer-reviewed articles.”

Other Resources

As we will continue to discuss, the most useful sources for your research project are not always proper academic, peer-reviewed articles. For instance, if I were writing a paper on the experience of working for United Airlines, a compelling blog post by a flight attendant that speaks to the actual working conditions they experienced might be more appropriate than a data-driven scholarly investigation of the United Airlines consumer trends. You might find that a TED Talk, a published interview, an advertisement, or some other nonacademic source would be useful for your writing. Therefore, it’s important that you evaluate all the texts you encounter, being especially careful with texts that some people might see as unreliable. (See “The CRAAP Test: Evaluating Traditional Sources” and “Four Moves and a Habit: Evaluating Web Sources” for more on evaluating sources.)

Additional Techniques for Discovering Sources

All it takes is one or two really good sources to get you started. You should keep your perspective wide to catch as much as you can—but if you’ve found a handful of good sources, the following are tools that can help you find even more:

  • The author of that perfect article probably got some of their information from somewhere else, just like you. Citation mining is the process of using a text’s citations, bibliography, or notes to track down other similar or related sources. Plug the author’s citations into your school’s library search engine or Google Scholar to see if you have access.
  • Web of Science is like reverse citation mining: instead of using a text’s bibliography to find more sources, you find other sources that cite your text in their bibliographies. Web of Science is a digital archive that shows you connections between different authors and their writing—and not only for science! If you find a good source that is documented in this database, you can see other texts that cite that source.
  • Bootstrapping is a technique that works best on search engines with detail features, like your library search engine. Search engines tag each text with certain subject keywords. By clicking on those keywords, you can link to other texts tagged with the same keywords, typically according to Library of Congress standards.

The first and most important piece of advice I can offer you as you begin to dig into these sources: stay organized. By taking notes and keeping a record of where each idea is coming from, you save yourself a lot of time—and avoid the risk of unintentional plagiarism.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your typical research process? Where and how do you find articles? Which new ideas in this chapter would you like to try?
  2. What is typically the easiest part of research for you, and what is the hardest? Why?


Library Exploration
Spend ten to fifteen minutes exploring your school’s library website, using the questions in the “Your Library” section of this chapter as a guide. What did you discover that you didn’t know before about the resources available?
Research Scavenger Hunt
To practice using a variety of research tools and finding a diversity of sources, try to discover resources according to the following constraints. Once you find a source, you should make sure you can access it later—save it to your computer; copy a live, stable URL; request it from the library; and/or save it to your Library eShelf, if you have one. For this assignment, you can copy a URL or DOI for digital resources or a library call number for physical ones.

If you’re already working on a project, use your topic for this activity. If you don’t have a topic in mind, choose one by picking up a book, paper, or other written text near you: close your eyes and point to a random part of the page. Use the noun closest to your finger that you find vaguely interesting as a topic or search term for this exercise.
Be sure to list enough information in your assignment so that you can find the source again! The author’s name, the article title, and the DOI or URL will all be helpful.

Research Scavenger Hunt

  1. A peer-reviewed journal article through a database
  2. A source you bootstrapped using subject tags
  3. An article from a reputable journalism source
  4. A source through Google Scholar
  5. A source originally cited in a Wikipedia article
  6. A source that provides supporting facts
  7. A source that provides a perspective or argument
  8. A source you citation-mined from another source’s bibliography
  9. A text that is not credible
  10. A text published within the last two years


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How to Find Sources Copyright © 2022 by Shane Abrams; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.