You may have heard the old adage, “You are what you eat!” This trite phrase cautions people not to eat a diet solely consisting of donuts because the quality of food that goes into a person will affect the person as a whole. The same principle can be applied to papers. The quality of your paper depends on the sources you cite. Because of that, it’s important to be careful when using sources in a paper.
Knowing the different levels of sources can help you evaluate your sources for quality. In your research, you will encounter primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.
Primary sources are original works (e.g., manuscripts, paintings, musical scores, historical artifacts, etc.) or data collections done by researchers. These types of sources can be more difficult to analyze, but are generally the most reliable and unedited sources available.
Secondary sources are analyses of primary sources done by researchers. These types of sources can provide valuable insights into primary sources. Be careful, though, because these frequently have errors, or can be biased in their reflection of primary sources.
Tertiary sources are works based on secondary sources, including general encyclopedias and popular-level books and articles. These are generally not scholarly sources, and you don’t want to cite them directly if you can help it. However, these sources can be a great way to become familiar with a topic, and many, such as Wikipedia, include a bibliography of their own, which can supply you with primary and secondary sources you can check out.
Keep in mind that your sources were written by human beings. Human beings make mistakes and are often just plain wrong, so it’s important to make sure your sources are reliable. You can do this by checking out the author's background, the publisher, or even just by Googling the source’s title and looking for reviews. The more experienced your author, the more likely it is that their conclusions are reliable.
Hopefully, tips like these make research seem a little less daunting. Use common sense, and be cautious. There’s some great sources out there that will be helpful, reliable, and unbiased.