Part 2: The research process
2.2 Categorizing sources
Once you have your research question, you’ll need information sources to answer it and meet the other information needs of your research project.
This section about categorizing sources will increase your sophistication about them and save you time in the long run because you’ll understand the “big picture”. That big picture will be useful as you plan your own sources for a specific research project.
You’ll usually have a lot of sources available to meet the information needs of your projects. In today’s complex information landscape, just about anything that contains information can be considered a potential source.
Here are a few examples:
- Books and encyclopedias
- Websites, web pages, and blogs
- Magazine, journal, and newspaper articles
- Research reports and conference papers
- Field notes and diaries
- Social media posts
- Photographs, paintings, cartoons, and other art works
- TV and radio programs, podcasts, movies, and videos
- Illuminated manuscripts and artifacts
- Bones, minerals, and fossils
- Preserved tissues and organs
- Architectural plans and maps
- Pamphlets and government documents
- Music scores and recorded performances
- Dance notation and theater set models
- People with expertise or experience on a particular topic
With so many sources available, the question usually is not whether sources exist for your project but which ones will best meet your information needs.
Being able to categorize a source helps you understand the kind of information it contains, which is a big clue to (1) whether might meet one or more of your information needs and (2) where to look for it and similar sources.
A source can be categorized by:
- Whether it contains quantitative or qualitative information or both
- Whether the source is objective (factual) or persuasive (opinion) and may be biased
- Whether the source is a scholarly, professional or popular publication
- Whether the material is a primary, secondary or tertiary source
- What format the source is in
As you may already be able to tell, sources can be in more than one category at the same time because the categories are not mutually exclusive.
Quantitative or qualitative
One of the most obvious ways to categorize information is by whether it is quantitative or qualitative. Some sources contain either quantitative information or qualitative information, but sources often contain both.
Many people first think of information as something like what’s in a table or spreadsheet of numbers and words. But information can be conveyed in more ways than textually or numerically.
Quantitative information – Involves a measurable quantity—numbers are used. Some examples are length, mass, temperature, and time. Quantitative information is often called data, but can also be things other than numbers.
Qualitative information – Involves a descriptive judgment using concept words instead of numbers. Gender, country name, animal species, and emotional state are examples of qualitative information.
Fact or opinion
Thinking about the reason an author produced a source can be helpful to you because that reason was what dictated the kind of information they chose to include. Depending on that purpose, the author may have chosen to include factual, analytical, and objective information. Or, instead, it may have suited their purpose to include information that was subjective and therefore less factual and analytical. The author’s reason for producing the source also determined whether they included more than one perspective or just their own.
Authors typically want to do at least one of the following:
- Inform and educate
- Sell services or products or
- Combined purposes
Sometimes authors have a combination of purposes, as when a marketer decides he can sell more smart phones with an informative sales video that also entertains us. The same is true when a singer writes and performs a song that entertains us but that she intends to make available for sale. Other examples of authors having multiple purposes occur in most scholarly writing.
In those cases, authors certainly want to inform and educate their audiences. But they also want to persuade their audiences that what they are reporting and/or postulating is a true description of a situation, event, or phenomenon or a valid argument that their audience must take a particular action. In this blend of scholarly author’s purposes, the intent to educate and inform is considered to trump the intent to persuade.
Why intent matters
Authors’ intent usually matters in how useful their information can be to your research project, depending on which information need you are trying to meet. For instance, when you’re looking for sources that will help you actually decide your answer to your research question or evidence for your answer that you will share with your audience, you will want the author’s main purpose to have been to inform or educate their audience. That’s because, with that intent, they are likely to have used:
- Facts where possible.
- Multiple perspectives instead of just their own.
- Little subjective information.
- Seemingly unbiased, objective language that cites where they got the information.
The reason you want that kind of resource when trying to answer your research question or explaining that answer is that all of those characteristics will lend credibility to the argument you are making with your project. Both you and your audience will simply find it easier to believe—will have more confidence in the argument being made—when you include those types of sources.
Sources whose authors intend only to persuade others won’t meet your information need for an answer to your research question or evidence with which to convince your audience. That’s because they don’t always confine themselves to facts. Instead, they tell us their opinions without backing them up with evidence. If you used those sources, your readers will notice and not believe your argument.
Fact vs. opinion vs. objective vs. subjective
Need to brush up on the differences between fact, objective information, subjective information, and opinion?
Fact – Facts are useful to inform or make an argument.
- The sky is blue.
- Some countries follow Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and others follow International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).
- Beethoven had a reputation as a virtuoso pianist.
Opinion – Opinions are useful to persuade, but careful readers and listeners will notice and demand evidence to back them up.
- That was a good movie.
- Strawberries taste better blueberries.
- Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) are better than International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).
- Placing one space after a period is the most professional way to type messages.
- Beethoven’s reputation as a virtuoso pianist is overrated.
Objective – Objective information reflects a research finding or multiple perspectives that are not biased.
- “Several studies show that some font types are more easily read by people with vision impairment than others.”
- “A 2017 study from Kwantlen Polytechnic University showed that adults have the same ability as toddlers in taking the perspective of another person.”
Subjective – Subjective information presents one person or organization’s perspective or interpretation. Subjective information can be meant to distort, or it can reflect educated and informed thinking. All opinions are subjective, but some are backed up with facts more than others.
- “The simple truth is this: You should never use the Comic Sans font to write a business message.”
- “Resumes for graduating students should be as short as possible—ideally one to two pages.”
Primary, secondary & tertiary sources
Another information category is called publication mode and has to do with whether the information is:
- First-hand information (information in its original form, not translated or published in another form).
- Second-hand information (a restatement, analysis, or interpretation of original information).
- Third-hand information (a summary or repackaging of original information, often based on secondary information that has been published).
When you make distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, you are relating the information itself to the context in which it was created. Understanding that relationship is an important skill that you’ll need in university, as well as in the workplace. Noting the relationship between creation and context helps us understand the “big picture” in which information operates and helps us figure out which information we can depend on.
Primary sources – Because it is in its original form, the information in primary sources has reached us from its creators without going through any filter. We get it first-hand. Here are some examples that are often used as primary sources:
- Music and dance performances.
- Eyewitness accounts
- Artifacts such as tools, clothing, or other objects.
- Original documents such as tax returns, marriage licenses, and transcripts of trials.
- Journal articles that report original research for the first time (the parts about the new research, plus their data).
Secondary sources – These sources are translated, repackaged, restated, analyzed, or interpreted from a primary source. Thus, the information comes to us second-hand, or through at least one filter. Here are some examples that are often used as secondary sources:
- All nonfiction books and magazine articles other than autobiography.
- An article or website that critiques a novel, play, painting, or piece of music.
- An article or web site that synthesizes expert opinion and several eyewitness accounts for a new understanding of an event.
- The literature review portion of a journal article.
Tertiary sources – These sources further repackage the original information because they index, condense, or summarize the original. Tertiary sources are usually publications that you are not intended to read from cover to cover but to dip in and out of for the information you need. You can think of them as a good place for background information to start your research but a bad place to end up. Here are some examples that are often used as tertiary sources:
- Guide books.
- Survey articles.
- Encyclopedias, including Wikipedia.
- Most textbooks.
Is it a primary source or a secondary source?
Deciding whether to consider a journal article a primary or a secondary source can be complicated for at least two reasons.
First, journal articles that report new research for the first time are usually based on data. Some disciplines consider the data to be the primary source, and the journal article that describes and analyzes them is considered a secondary source.
However, particularly in the sciences, the original researcher might find it difficult or impossible (they might not be allowed) to share the data. Sometimes you have nothing more first-hand than the journal article, which argues for calling it the relevant primary source because it’s the closest thing that exists to the data.
Second, even journal articles that announce new research for the first time usually contain more than data. They also typically contain secondary source elements, such as a literature review, bibliography, and sections on data analysis and interpretation. They can actually be a mix of primary and secondary elements. Even so, in some disciplines, a journal article that announces new research findings for the first time is considered to be, as a whole, a primary source for the researchers using it.
What are considered primary and secondary sources can vary from discipline to discipline. If you are required to use primary sources for your research project, before getting too deep into your project check with your professor to make sure they agree with your choices. A librarian, too, can verify your choices.
Popular, professional & scholarly sources
We can also categorize information by the expertise of its intended audience. Considering the intended audience—how expert one has to be to understand the information—can indicate whether the source has sufficient credibility and thoroughness to meet your need.
There are varying degrees of expertise:
Popular – Popular newspaper and magazine articles (such as The Walrus, the Globe & Mail, and Maclean’s) are meant for a large general audience, are generally affordable, and are easy to purchase or available for free. They are written by staff writers or reporters for the general public.
Additionally, they are:
- About news, opinions, background information, and entertainment.
- More attractive than scholarly journals, with catchy titles, attractive artwork, and many advertisements but no footnotes or references.
- Published by commercial publishers.
- Published after approval from an editor.
Professional – Professional magazine articles (such as CPA Magazine and Communication World) are meant for people in a particular profession and are often accessible through a professional organization. Staff writers or other professionals in the targeted field write these articles at a level and with the language to be understood by everyone in the profession.
Additionally, they are:
- About trends and news from the targeted field, book reviews, and case studies.
- Often less than 10 pages, some of which may contain footnotes and references.
- Usually published by professional associations and commercial publishers.
- Published after approval from an editor.
Scholarly – Scholarly journal articles (such as Journal of Management Information Systems and Business Marketing) are meant for scholars, students, and the general public who want a deep understanding of a problem or issue. Researchers and scholars write these articles to present new knowledge and further understanding of their field of study.
Additionally, they are:
- Where findings of research projects, data and analytics, and case studies usually appear first.
- Often long (usually over 10 pages) and always include footnotes and references.
- Usually published by universities, professional associations, and commercial publishers.
- Published after approval by peer review or from the journal’s editor.
This chapter contains information taken from Categorizing Sources, Qualitative or Quantitative, Fact or Opinion, Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources, and Popular, Professional & Scholarly in Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research, which issued under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.