Creating a well-supported argument requires more than expressing your personal opinion; it also requires research. This process includes conducting background research, discovering what experts have to say about the issue, and evaluating opposing viewpoints. The research phase is when you will use logos to strengthen your argument.
You have access to a wealth of information through the internet as well as McConnell Library resources. To be an effective researcher you need to determine which databases are most likely to guide you to sources that will be useful for the particular project you are working on. Simple internet searches may be useful for general overviews, like you would find on Wikipedia, or for finding popular sources on your topic.
Popular sources (e.g., newspapers, magazines, blogs) are most often written by journalists and other non-specialists. They are geared toward general audiences who have limited knowledge of the topic. Scholarly sources, on the other hand, are written by specialists for specialists. Scholarly sources are considered the “gold standard” for providing supporting evidence for your arguments as they reflect current research and expert opinion. Scholarly sources are best found through subscription library databases like SuperSearch.
This section reviews the differences between scholarly and popular sources, how best to find sources, and the importance of using research to support your arguments. There will be answers to the following questions.
- How is research like a conversation?
- Why do I need to use different types of sources?
- What makes a source scholarly?
- What is peer review?
- How are scholarly sources different from popular sources?
- Is everything published in a journal a scholarly article?
- How can I identify a scholarly source?
- Why should I use scholarly sources?
- How can I best read scholarly sources?
- When should I use popular sources?
- Where can I find scholarly sources?
- Why are there different databases?
- Why should I use a subject-specific database?
- What information do I need to collect in order to cite scholarly sources?
- How do I avoid plagiarism while incorporating sources into my own work?
- Why should I address different viewpoints?
- How do I integrate different viewpoints into my arguments?
- Why do I need to represent the other side fairly?
- How can I evaluate the credibility of these sources?
The most useful articles and books on a topic are in a conversation with each other. They should acknowledge the contributions of others and either provide a perspective upon those contributions or add new data or arguments. Popular sources may not provide new data or arguments, but they take ideas that may be technical in origin and make them accessible to non-specialists. Scholarly sources very explicitly acknowledge the contributions of others through citations and references and provide new data or arguments.
Your task as a researcher is to recognize the contribution to the conversation being made by each type of source. If a popular article provides an overview in terms that a layperson can understand, it may be a good starting point, providing you with an overall perspective. If you need a more in-depth treatment of a source, a scholarly source may be best.
Whether you are using a popular or scholarly source, take advantage of the fact that any good source is part of a conversation. Popular sources may not include citations or a list of references, but they will refer to experts and sources that you can look up. In fact, if the popular source is from an online publication, it is likely to include links to those experts and sources. Similarly, take advantage of the citations and lists of references that you will find in scholarly sources. The citations and references in the scholarly sources and the less formal documentation in the popular sources both allow you to hear the voices of other participants in the conversation.
Making use of different types of sources is a good idea because some provide information and analysis based on data while others provide opinions to which you may respond. Typically, scholarly sources will provide the most in-depth, direct version of information and data analysis. Popular sources, on the other hand, usually provide information and analysis as it has been interpreted—and sometimes oversimplified or even distorted—by reporters and editors. Popular sources also may provide opinions or editorialize about that information. Using a variety of sources demonstrates that you have researched the topic enough to become part of the conversation. You understand different viewpoints and can evaluate the credibility of their claims, which increases your ethos.
- are written by experts in a field, generally people with an advanced degree (such as a Ph.D.) in the relevant discipline and frequently with lengthy professional experience;
- are well-documented, with citations and a list of references demonstrating familiarity with relevant prior research;
- go through a formal peer review process: facts and analysis are examined by other experts in the relevant field; and
- are published in academic journals or by well-established presses known for releasing reputable work.
Care must be taken in determining whether or not a journal or press is reputable. Because of changes in publication practices, a class of periodicals known as “predatory journals” has come into being. These journals have titles that sound scholarly but publish poor quality articles in exchange for payment by authors who are trying to pad their resumes. Do some checking to determine whether a reputable publisher, university, or scholarly organization stands behind a journal. Keep in mind that even the fact that a journal is indexed in a database as “scholarly” is no guarantee of its quality. These two websites can help you determine the quality of a journal:
- Beall’s List of Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access journals: http://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/
- Criteria for Determining Predatory Open-Access Publishers: http://scholarlyoa.com/2012/11/30/criteria-for-determining-predatory-open-access-publishers-2nd-edition/.
In the peer review process, a submitted article is circulated to experts in the relevant field. In a “blind” review, these experts will not know the author’s identity, increasing the likelihood that their assessment of the submission will be unbiased.The experts read the piece and decide whether it is well-researched and well-written and whether it makes a meaningful contribution to the conversation that is different enough from other articles to make it worth publishing. Reviewers may recommend that an article be rejected; that it be accepted; or that it be accepted, but only on condition that changes are made to correct or strengthen some aspect of the article.
If the process is followed properly, a reader may be fairly confident about the quality of the resulting publications. Moreover, articles remain under scrutiny as they are consulted by experts in the fields, and articles that are problematic can be weeded out after publication through a process called “retraction.” Both the pre- and post-publication scrutiny work to justify fairly strong reliance on scholarly sources.
This process of scientific review occurred in 2010 when The Lancet retracted a scholarly article written by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and 12 co-authors. This research study was one of the first to claim a causal link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. However, the results could not be replicated and a subsequent investigation showed that Wakefield was guilty of gross scientific and ethical violations that led to him losing his medical license (Deer, 2011).
Popular sources may be edited, but they do not go through peer review. In addition, popular sources are not expected to break new ground in the way scholarly sources are expected to. A scholarly article has to provide something that hasn’t already been said: new evidence, a new viewpoint, a new theory. For example, most newspaper and magazine articles about a presidential election will report the same basic facts: X won, Y lost. A scholarly article on a presidential election, however, is likely to be an in-depth analysis that draws upon numerous sources to place the election within the context of a discipline such as history or political science.
The process of publishing a scholarly article can be a lengthy one. The author must spend time gathering evidence, analyzing it thoroughly, and consulting other sources. The peer review process can be time consuming as well. Scholars usually take two or more years to publish an academic article. A popular article reporting on an election, however, may literally be published the day after the polls close. The popular source provides rapid access to information; a scholarly source provides analysis of that information within the context of a discipline, and that takes time.
In addition to scholarly articles, journals publish letters to the editor, editorials, book reviews, and news briefs. Frequently, these will lack citations and lists of references and so will be easy to differentiate from scholarly articles. In addition, you will notice that various disciplines have adopted standard formats for scholarly articles. In one discipline, it may be customary to begin an article with an abstract, followed by a statement of the problem, then a review of what other sources have to say about the problem, and so on. As you become familiar with the scholarly literature in your major, you will notice such conventions. Your instructors in fact may expect you to follow these conventions in your own papers.
From the information in the sections above, you can create a plan for identifying scholarly sources.
- Is the article published by a university press or by a journal sponsored by a university or a scholarly organization? Also pay attention to whether articles published by this press or journal are regularly cited by experts in the relevant field.
- Is the article written by an author who has a Ph.D. or who is a researcher in the relevant field? Scholarly articles usually will list the credentials of an author on either the first or last page. Also pay attention to whether articles written by this author are regularly cited by experts in the relevant field.
- Is the article a substantial one, developing the topic at great length?
- Is the article written in specialized language for fellow scholars?
- Does the article show familiarity with the conventions of the discipline?
- Is the article well-documented, with numerous citations and a lengthy list of references to sources appropriate for the discipline?
A scholarly source is a substantial, discipline-specific treatment of a topic. Scholarly sources:
- treat topics in depth,
- expand your knowledge greatly,
- challenge you to read deeply, and
- provide references that point you to additional relevant sources
Because scholarly sources are written for experts by experts, undergraduates may initially find them difficult to read. Yet scholarly sources can be mastered and will prove to be useful sources for students who follow the advice below.
Be certain to do background research* so you know the basics of the topic. The author of a scholarly source will assume that the reader has mastered these basics and will not provide elementary information about the field. In particular, focus on the terms that show up in your background research. Understand what they mean.
Use the abstract to orient yourself, but never treat it as if reading it can substitute for reading the article itself. The abstract sketches the framework of the article but leaves out crucial details. Also keep in mind that in some journals, abstracts are not even written by the authors but are supplied by the editors. (Note: For that reason, never quote from an abstract.)
The beginning of the article may contain a literature review that summarizes previous articles and books on the topic. In this summary, the author explains what she knows about the existing research and stakes her claim to bringing something new to the conversation. Don’t get too bogged down in this review, but recognize that you may find other useful sources there.
Read through the article once, just to get a sense of the author’s argument. Then, with a pen or pencil, go back and read it again more closely. Take notes. Engage with the text. What seems important? Confusing? Interesting?
You may also wish to highlight passages, but combine highlighting with note-taking. Highlighting can identify significant passages, but note-taking involves a higher level of engagement.
The reference list is like a gift from the author to the reader. If this article is on your topic, then its sources likely will be of use to you in your own project. Run the titles through SuperSearch or through one or more subject-specific databases. If your search does not immediately pan out, talk to your instructor or an instructional librarian about how to find the full text of these sources.
Popular sources may be helpful for background research. They are meant for a general audience, so they don’t assume you know much about the topic. That fact makes them valuable when you are just starting out.
Popular sources are written more quickly than scholarly sources, so you can use them to find out the latest information on a topic—keeping in mind, of course, that the information may not be presented as in-depth or within the context that would be provided by a scholarly source.
Popular sources often are story-driven. Their authors may be mindful of the need to supply a “hook” to gain the attention of a general readership. That fact may make them a good place to find anecdotes to give pathos to your research project.
Library databases often have checkboxes for limiting searches to scholarly or peer-reviewed sources. Remember that you still must review articles to determine whether the databases got it right.
The library has books on most topics, either in print or as etexts. Printed books and etexts can be located via the library catalog or via SuperSearch.
Look at the reference lists of other scholarly books and articles. Many times these lists will include items of interest to you. Search for the sources using the library catalog, through SuperSearch, or through one or more subject-specific databases.
Sometimes reference lists will include sources that are not accessible through the McConnell Library. However, through Inter Library Loan, the McConnell Library will request that source for you from another library. Make your request as soon as you can so the library staff has enough time to obtain the source.
Different databases serve the needs of different readers.
Some databases are general interest. A general-interest database:
- covers a wide range of topics,
- indexes sources that may not go into great depth, and
- indexes nontechnical sources intended for general readers rather than specialists.
Alternately, a subject-specific database
- covers fewer topics,
- indexes sources that go into great depth, and
- indexes technical sources intended for specialists interested in looking at a topic through the frame of their particular discipline.
Non-specialists who are curious about a subject but who are not necessarily interested in the level of detail in a technical report likely would use a general-interest database to locate sources. Scholars, on the other hand, usually are most interested in how other specialists in their field address a topic, so they want to see the literature from their discipline. For example, if you are a nurse who needs to know the latest research on patient care, you probably want to read articles from fellow health practitioners. Subject-specific databases allow such precision.
Let’s say you were interested in whether people are fundamentally honest. Psychologists who study this issue will look at the mind and how people think; sociologists will focus on the impact of culture and society on honesty; economists will perform a cost-benefit analysis of actions that are honest and dishonest. All are talking about the same topic but looking at it in very different ways that are specific to their disciplines
To pursue one of these approaches, you would use a database that indexes literature in one of the disciplines. Your choice would be determined by:
- the area in which you are most interested or
- the area corresponding to the subject matter of the course.
Classes in your major almost always will require you to used subject-specific databases (e.g., ERIC for education, PsycINFO for psychology, and CINAHL for nursing). Reliance on such subject-specific database will make it more likely that the results will be relevant and less likely that they will be cluttered with material that has nothing to do with your interests but that happens to use the same terminology.
- author name(s),
- publication date,
- article title,
- journal title,
- issue number, as available,
- page numbers, and
- Digital Object Identifier (DOI) if available.
- author name(s),
- year of publication,
- book title,
- place of publication, and
For books, also record information about editors and translators, as well as whether the book has gone through a new edition. See the McConnell Library APA LibGuide for information about citing different kinds of sources.
In the CORE 101 Opposing Viewpoints assignment, you learned how to cite sources correctly as to avoid plagiarism. The McConnell Library Plagiarism LibGuide includes additional information about the differences between quoting, summarizing, and paraphrasing sources. In CORE 201, you are expected to be part of the research conversation such that you can explain how your sources agree and disagree on the major issues. Being able to synthesize all of your sources into a cohesive narrative is a difficult and time consuming task compared to interspersing random quotes throughout your paper. This is why we advocate starting the research process early so you have time to read and fully process what your sources contribute to your argument. Cite your sources to give credit to others’ work, but you also do it to enhance your credibility. If you can show you’ve done the hard work of researching the issue, you will be able to make a much more persuasive argument to the audience.
An argument that takes an opposing position is called a counter-argument. Responding to strong counter-arguments is an important part of critical thinking.
Many people avoid bringing up opposing positions because they worry about making their own arguments look weak. However, if people who have published on your topic have come up with strong counter-arguments, some of your audience members probably are aware of them. If you don’t acknowledge and respond to the counter-arguments, your audience likely will not be persuaded because they will see “holes” in your argument. Instead, address those counter-arguments and show why your position is stronger. You will be more persuasive and will enhance your credibility by showing that you are a good critical thinker who can examine opposing positions and explain whether or not they are logical and supported by sufficient evidence.
Sometimes you might find a counter-argument that is so strong it will convince you to alter your original viewpoint. Being a good critical thinker means being open to the possibility of changing your mind if the evidence is strong enough. However, a lot of times you’ll find counter-arguments that are strong enough to address but aren’t strong enough to undermine your claims. In those cases, you need to address the merits of the counter-argument and show why your argument is better. You need to figure out what kind of argument the source is making and why the evidence isn’t sufficient. By presenting the counter-argument clearly and adequately refuting it, you’ll strengthen your own argument and win over some of your skeptical audience members.
You commit a straw man fallacy when you mischaracterize someone’s position to make it easier to argue against. It is very important to avoid this fallacy when you are responding to counter-arguments. Your audience may see the opposing position as raising legitimate questions. If you argue against a distorted or oversimplified version of your opponent’s position, the audience will feel that you have not really answered their concerns. For that reason, represent the counter-arguments fairly and accurately and do your audience the courtesy of providing honest, thoughtful, and thorough answers.
For example, if you are giving a speech on climate change, your research may lead you to argue that humanity’s over-reliance on fossil fuels is causing the Earth’s climate to warm. Still, you may find a few sources that argue that humans are not affecting the climate. Make certain that you represent these sources fairly. If you are arguing that humans influence climate, then obviously you think the evidence for that position is stronger. However, if you say things such as “People who oppose global warming just don’t care about the environment,” then you are committing the straw man fallacy, and you have offended anyone who disagrees with you (who are probably the people you most want to convince).
To successfully research a topic, you must become familiar with its background; you must select and make effective use of appropriate databases in order to locate sources; and you must choose between popular and scholarly sources, as appropriate. You must also evaluate the credibility of the sources that you have located.
Under the Academic Argument assignment in CORE 101, you were introduced to these two questions, each relevant to the evaluation of sources:
Evaluating sources was stressed even more heavily under the Research Narrative assignment in CORE 102, where these questions were introduced:
- How do I know if a source is credible?
- How do I know if a source is appropriate for my project?
- Who is an expert?
- How do I decide if someone is an expert?
- How do I decide if someone’s expertise is relevant?
- How do you know if you should trust the expert?
- What is bias?
You will be expected to incorporate all of the skills and knowledge you have learned about arguments into the three major assignments for this course: Argument Analysis, Annotated Bibliography, and Persuasive Speech. Information relevant to each assignment is included in the following sections.
Deer, B. (2011, January 6). How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed. BMJ [British Medical Journal] 342, c5347. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c5347