Creating a well-supported argument requires more than expressing your personal opinion; it also requires research. This process includes conducting background research, discovering what other sources and experts have to say about the issue, and evaluating opposing viewpoints.
In this project, you will use a wide variety of sources, such as books, Websites, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and scholarly articles. 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 types of sources will be useful for the particular project you are working on, and what tools will help you locate such sources.
You most likely have experience finding popular sources using search engines like Google and McConnell Library’s SuperSearch. Articles published in magazines and newspapers, blog postings, and many Websites are written for general audiences who have limited knowledge of the topic. These sources tend to be fairly short and easy to read.
In Core 201, you will expand your source use to include scholarly sources, such as academic journal articles and books published by university presses. Scholarly sources are written by specialists for specialists; they are often lengthy with substantial reference lists. While scholarly sources are often more challenging to read and engage with, they are an important part of the information world. When making an argument, you want to include the most current research and expert opinions; these are found in scholarly sources.
This section discusses the research synthesis assignment, which is intended to develop your searching, evaluation, and source use skills. There will be answers to the following questions.
- What is a research synthesis?
- 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?
- Are scholarly sources always better than other types of sources?
- Where can I find scholarly sources?
- Why are there different databases?
- Why should I use a subject-specific database?
- How can I evaluate the credibility of my sources?
- How do I synthesize my sources?
- How do I avoid plagiarism while incorporating sources into my own work?
A research synthesis is a paper that tells the “story” of your research process and helps you bring your sources together to construct your argument. Your professor may use it to help you organize your thoughts for your persuasive speech. It includes:
- Background information about your research topic or question
- Discussion of your search strategies and techniques
- Explanation of how you evaluated your sources
- Synthesis of your sources’ arguments
- Reference list
For a review of how to select a research question and how to conduct background research, see the Research Process section in CORE 102.
Making use of different types of sources is a good idea because your information needs will change as your research progresses.
When you begin your research, you may know very little about your topic. Wikipedia, reference books from the library, and Websites aimed at ‘newbies’ (people new to the idea) will serve you well at this point in your process.
Once you have some background knowledge, you will want to find out more about the current situation, and begin to learn more details. You can use Google and SuperSearch to locate popular sources like newspapers, magazines, and blogs.
In Core 201, your research topic has a persuasive component; you will be making an argument about it. You’ll need to locate the best expert opinions available to create a strong argument. In addition to editorials you might find in the popular press, you should consult scholarly works like academic journal articles. Scholarly sources also provide the most in-depth information and data analysis, which will help you add logos to your paper.
All of these sources are beneficial to your research. If you used just one type, your conclusions about your topic would suffer. If you just used Wikipedia and Websites, your paper would be very superficial. If you jumped right into the scholarly sources, you probably would not understand the basics of your topic and your paper would be very disjointed and confusing.
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.
Remember that in all cases, you still need to use your critical thinking skills and evaluate your sources.
- 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.
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.
No. Scholarly sources are an important part of the information landscape and depending on your major, you may use them extensively after Core 201. But a good critical thinker will consider her information needs, and judge whether a scholarly source is truly the best option.
Scholarly sources are the ‘gold standard’ for some fields, such as the sciences. This makes sense; you probably want your doctor to make decisions about your welfare based on the latest research, conducted under rigorous scientific conditions, and not a blog post by a layperson.
But in other circumstances, there may not be scholarly sources on a topic, or the scholarly format may not be appropriate. The autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass recounts his days living as a slave in pre-Civil War United States. Although it does not have a reference list or other characteristics of a scholarly work, it is considered one of the most important works about that time and place in American history. You should not dismiss a source simply because it is not scholarly.
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.
During your research, you undoubtedly ran across many more articles and Websites than you ended up using. In the evaluation section of your synthesis, you will explain your selection process in terms of relevance, authority and currency.
Relevance: How is the source applicable to your research topic or question?
Authority: What makes this source reliable? This could be tied to the author or the publication, and will change depending on the topic and information need.
Currency: Is the date of publication suitable for your research topic or question?
For example, Molly’s research question is, “Should police officers carry the overdose reversal drug, Narcan?” For relevance, she focused on articles that specifically addressed law enforcement’s carrying Narcan, and set aside articles that talked about other professions’ involvement. For authority, she sought authors who had a medical or law enforcement background, or who were located in regions struggling with opioid addiction. Because it is a fairly recent situation, she limited her search to the last 5 years.
A strong research synthesis will explain the reasoning behind your choices. For more help with establishing criteria, revisit the Applying Critical Reasoning In Critiquing Claims section of Core 102: Research Process.
15. How do I synthesize my sources?
In a synthesis, you discuss what you learned from your articles. This should not be individual summaries of your sources, but rather a description of the conversation the sources are having. Imagine that all of the authors are in a room discussing your topic. What would they say?
This might look something like this:
I find it interesting that according Smith (2013), “interesting thing that Smith says” (p. 25). This would seem to be consistent with, “interesting piece of information from another source” (Johnson, 2014, p. 63). However, it would seem that Williams disagrees as he states, “interesting disagreement from Williams” (Williams, 2005, p. 95). This relates to my initial research question because of _____ and _____.
In the Approaches to Written Argument 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.
Refer to the APA Libguide to help you create in-text citations and references.
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