Using Student Resource Center for Research
Distinguishing Between Primary and Secondary Sources
Evaluating Information Sources
Review the Author's/Publisher's Credentials and Affiliations
Identify the Article's Supporting Material
Student Resource Center and Critical Thinking
Distinguishing Fact from Opinion and Bias from Reason
Distinguishing Between Primary and Secondary Sources Back to top
A primary source is original material or information that has not been interpreted by another person. Examples of primary sources are court records, government documents (like the Constitution), letters, some documentary films, memoirs, position papers of organizations, original research, and editorials. A secondary source is made up of information collected from numerous primary sources that is interpreted by the collector. Examples of secondary sources include histories (such as a history of the Constitution and its framers), encyclopedia articles, many magazine articles, and critical analyses.
Primary Sources. Primary sources often have the immediacy of an eyewitness. They can provide details that may not be available to an outside observer or scholar. But they may also present information in a manner colored by the author's personal views or experience. For example, a Palestinian describing his life under Israeli rule gives a valuable personal account of what conditions are like. Yet in looking at such an account, one might ask whether the author's individual experiences are typical of the average Palestinian. Is his account affected by his political views or affiliation? The reader must presume that this eyewitness account would be different from a version given by an Israeli living in the same town. Both accounts might be accurate, in which case you would have to consult other primary and secondary sources to gain an understanding of what life on the West Bank is like.
Secondary Sources. A secondary source may or may not offer information that is more analytical and comprehensive than that found in a primary source. The secondary source author has the advantage of hindsight and, in many cases, access to several primary sources and thus to several perspectives. The author may have more of an objective distance from the events being depicted. But a secondary source is only as factually accurate as the primary sources it uses. And the secondary source author may write an account as colored by personal views as an eyewitness might. Thus a secondary account of Palestinian life on the West Bank in a newspaper that targets a Palestinian audience might reflect and reinforce the publication's editorial stance about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Some sources are not clearly primary or secondary and must be considered carefully. For example, is a television documentary a primary or secondary source? On the one hand, it contains visual presentation of primary sources, such as interviews. On the other hand, the interviews and the presentation of the topic in general are a product of the filmmaker's interpretation of what is important in covering the topic. In this case, the source could be both primary and secondary.
Evaluating Information Sources Back to Top
In addition to identifying whether a source is a primary or secondary source, you must also learn to discern what information is most valuable for completing an assignment or report. You probably have been told that all information, no matter how objectively presented, has a point of view. When Time magazine promises to "put the world in your hands," it is really promising that its staff will gather and condense what they consider the top stories of the week into a concise, convenient package. Although such a product is not a bad source of information, it is not a perfectly objective, all-knowing source, either. Its content is the reflection of the biases, both political and cultural, of the magazine's editors and publisher and also of their limitations in time and resources when trying to cover world events on a weekly basis.
Point of View. You should critically examine sources of information to determine point of view and to find out how this point of view affects the accuracy of their coverage. When examining a source of information, check the author's previous writings or his/her relationship to the events being written about. Is the author a member of a partisan organization involved in a dispute being portrayed? Has the author shown a consistent stand on the topic in previous writings? In addition, you should look at other articles on the topic in the same publications. Is there a consistent point of view? Its point of view can also be discerned by comparing its information with other sources that are known to have opposing views on the same topic. Learn to question a source: What are its intentions? What are its biases? What does it gain by presenting a particular perspective?
Timeliness. A source should also be evaluated for its timeliness. It must give information that adequately reflects the time period of the topic being covered. For example, when writing about a topic such as the protest movement during the Vietnam War, you may consider a variety of sources in order to write on the topic. While you may want to look at histories of the protest movement first, to get an overall impression, you will also want to look at eyewitness accounts of participants in the movement, as well as opponents of it. A mixture of such accounts from both the time period of the war and those written later might also be useful. The sources written after the war may bring some historical distance to their discussion of the topic. But the sources written during the war give direct evidence of why people were opposed to it.
Usefulness. Beyond determining the point of view and timeliness of an information source, you must also judge its usefulness. You must determine whether the source deals with the aspects of the subject needed for the research project. You should know that some sources will be more directly useful for writing about the topic, while some will provide valuable background information, while others will have only marginal value at best.
In evaluating a source, you should determine whether the author's intention is appropriate to serve your needs. A scholarly secondary source, for example, would be more useful in providing an in-depth historical perspective on a topic than seventy seconds of documentary film footage on a television news program. On the other hand, the news story may contain quotes that give useful information or insight into a topic. All of these factors should be considered when determining the usefulness of a source.
Review the Author's/Publisher’s Credentials and Affiliations Back to Top
Some articles in the Student Resource Center database give a brief biography of the author. You should pay special attention to this information. Read the author's biographical sketch and ask yourself the following questions: What is the author's background, and how might it be likely to affect his/her point of view? Is the author qualified to speak on this particular topic? Is the author likely to take a view because of his/her profession or because he/she is personally involved in the issue? Asking these questions will help you establish whether the author has a particular bias. It will also make you aware that authors are rarely completely objective, no matter how reasonably they present their views. For articles without author biographies, look to information about the publisher and the publication to determine credentials. Ask yourself questions like: Is this a well known publisher or organization? What else have they published? Are they a known authority on the field? Who thinks this? Are they credible? Determining this information and other key factors may help you analyze the credibility of publisher. It is particularly important to verify information accessed on the Internet. Reliable online sources include subscription databases, such as Thomson Gale's Student Resource Center, and websites of educational or professional organizations, such as the Library of Congress's American Memory site and the MayoClinic.com health site. Many online sites, however, present material that is inaccurate, incomplete, obsolete, or biased.
Identify the Article's Supporting Material Back to Top
Does the author quote statistics, scientific or government reports, or other factual data to support his/her conclusions? Or does the author use personal anecdotes, analogies, or experiences? What are the premises of the author's argument? Do they lead logically to his/her conclusion? Remember that you are not identifying the supporting evidence to judge whether it is valid, but more to find out what type of research informs the author's views. A research report on the AIDS virus might be important to finding out the latest treatments, while an article written by an AIDS patient about how such drugs affected him/her will give a more personal perspective. Both views could find their way into a well-researched paper.
Statistics. To evaluate a debate on an issue, you should ask these questions and decide whether an author solidly presents his/her argument. Some authors may use identical statistics to argue opposing views. In such a case, you might need to read more material in order to judge these articles. Statistics themselves can be manipulated to prove different points. Asking yourself simple questions such as how many people were used to develop these statistics and which people were used? How old are the statistics? Which organization did the study that produced the statistics? can help to detect what the compiler of the statistics was hoping to achieve and how much you should trust the compiler's results.
All Points of View. Remember to give all points of view a fair reading. Most often, you can learn more from an article with which you disagree than one with which you agree. Sounds strange, doesn't it? When dealing with highly opinionated material, you may be tempted to simply agree with the author who best supports your own views. While this isn't necessarily bad, it doesn't represent critical thinking. You should read the all points of view with an open mind and search for both merits and faults in each author's view. You may even discover that by keeping your mind open to views you disagree with, your own views will be reinforced.
Student Resource Center and Critical Thinking Back to Top
You have probably been told that critical thinking is an important skill. The articles in Student Resource Center are excellent at helping you learn to think critically about issues. What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking has been described as "the careful and deliberate determination of whether to accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim" (Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker, Critical Thinking). More simply, critical thinking is the process of evaluating what other people say or write to determine whether to believe their statements.
Some statements are easy to assess. For example, "The President of the United States serves a four-year term." This is a fact and requires little deliberation. It can be easily verified. Other statements involve ideas that are more complex: "The United States must develop its Strategic Defense Initiative to protect it from enemy attack." Not only do you have to decide whether the United States has enemies that can destroy it, you have to determine whether building a Strategic Defense Initiative is the best way to counter such an attack. Your assessment of this statement may have a significant impact on your attitudes toward American defense and the policies of the U.S. government.
Distinguishing Fact from Opinion and Bias from Reason Back to Top
Developing the ability to think critically can be difficult because it is easier to make hasty judgments based on opinions and biases than it is to evaluate facts and arguments. For example, your friends might think that the death penalty is just, and you might also think so just because your friends do, without hearing any arguments to the contrary. Your viewpoint, based solely on the opinions of others, would be weak.
This skill focuses on distinguishing between a statement based on fact (one that can be proved true) and a statement based on opinion (one that expresses how a person feels about something or what a person thinks is true).
The ability to distinguish between these two types of statements is the essential first step to critical reading. Whether reading a newspaper or magazine, listening to a disagreement, or preparing for a debate, you can become a more sophisticated consumer of information if you can identify the speaker's viewpoint.
When first learning to assess this skill, you may be tempted to identify statements of fact as "important" and statements of opinion as "irrelevant" or "unimportant." It's important to remember that a factual statement may be false or taken out of context and thus be misleading. Likewise, on some issues, a statement of opinion might be the most important of all. The point is to practice distinguishing the difference between a fact and an opinion, not make evaluative judgments about them.
The hardest statements to label will be those that include statistics or other objective proof, yet are not merely fact. It is fairly easy to recognize that "two percent of all teenagers commit suicide" is a statement of fact. However, by adding another factor — "The high rate of divorce is responsible"--the "factual statement" becomes an opinion. You must be aware of such pitfalls.