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English - Literature and Composition: The Research Process

A guide to resources for English courses focusing on the study of literature and the process of writing.

Primary & Secondary Sources

Distinguishing between primary and secondary sources is an important first step in scholary research. As critical inquiry is essential to solid, accurate research, scholars need to know the difference. According to the Society of American Archivists, primary sources are defined as "material that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness."

The SAA also defines secondary resources as "works not based on direct observation of or evidence directly associated with the subject, but instead relying on sources of information", as well as "works commenting on another work (primary sources), such as reviews, criticism, and commentaries."

The American Library Association's Reference and User Services Association has a detailed guide discussing the use of primary sources in research. Princeton University also provides a comparative overview of primary and secondary resources to aid in distinguishing between the two.

Research Guides

Just a couple of titles listed in our collection related to the research process.

Starting the Research Process

Although good research takes time, it doesn't have to be difficult if time is taken to prepare. Here is a brief overview of the process.

  1. Think about your topic. Identify the main concept, then outline the related keywords.
  2. Narrow your topic. Concentrate on a particular aspect and keep your focus reasonable. Try using some mind mapping exercises to help focus your topic.
  3. Determine the scope of the focus. That is, how much content will be required to reasonably cover this aspect.
  4. Select and evaluate the appropriate sources: 
    1. Reference sources (dictionaries/encyclopedias) - these are excellent tools to find the basic background information.
    2. Library catalogs - Collections of sources in different disciplines. 
    3. Electronic databases - scholarly and popular/current event collections of periodicals of increasing specificity, providing access to full-text articles and/or citation information.
    4. Internet Search Directories - Google, Yahoo!, etc.
  5. Retrieve, examine, and organize (even delete) content - synthesize your information.
  6. Evaluate - Examine your findings critically, deleting unnecessary content falling outside your scope.
  7. Repeat the process.

Thinking Critically about Thinking

Developing ideas for focused study is difficult. Trying to understand how we as individuals think may help in developing patterns of successful information retrieval and processing. Use the Elements of Thought diagram to better understand the underlying mental processes and essential questions for critical thought.

Evaluating Web Content Critically - CRAAP Test

Conducting research is a critical process, no matter how trusted the source may be. Use the following criteria for evaluating the validity of Internet content:

Primary considerations:

  • Authority & Authorship - Is there a clearly defined author of the content, and if so, what are his or her credentials? Is there an "About" section listed on the site? Can the authors be contacted?
  • Bias - Is there a pursuit of objectivity in the content that is presented?  Or is there a noticeable bias or implicit agenda on the part of the author(s) that is discernible?
  • Relevancy - Is the content current enough or even pertinent to the subject to support the claims of the authors? How often is the content updated?
  • Accuracy - Are the proposed conclusions verifiable from the data presented? Is any data and accompanying references presented? Can fact be adequately separated from opinion?  

Also known as the CRAAP Test for evaluating information, use this set of criteria to maintain a critical focus on whatever sources are used in your research.

Other considerations for evaluation:

  • What is the domain of the site's URL (.com,.edu,.org,.net,.gov)?
  • Are there numerous broken links across the site?
  • Are there advertisements on the page which may promote an agenda?
  • Does the site rely too heavily on extra, downloadable software?

Other helpful sites 

Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask - University of California, Berkeley

Evaluating Information Found on the Internet - Johns Hopkins University

The Information Timeline

One helpful way to understand which source to use when starting a research project is to think about the timeline in which events unfold, and the sources in which they are published along the timeline.

When events occur, information is disseminated almost immediately by social media and popular news sites across the internet, and television. Newspapers will then offer more detailed accounts of the event. After a week, a more detailed analysis of the event will take place in formats such as magazines. After about a month, subject-specific scholarly journals will publish articles by academic professionals providing a more thorough summary and historical synopsis of the event. In approximately a year, books will be published describing the event. Finally, after years of analysis, reference sources (encyclopedias, handbooks, etc.) publish a more complete history and evaluation of the event.

The University of Arizona provides an excellent (and brief) interactive tutorial of the Information Timeline. Temple University Libraries also provide a thorough explanation of the concept. 

Information Timeline: From an Event to a Book (University of Arizona Libraries)

The Information Cycle (University of Illinois Libraries)