Print & Electronic Sources for Scientific Research

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  • 0:02 Using Sources in Research
  • 0:50 Primary & Secondary Sources
  • 2:42 Print Sources
  • 5:02 Online Sources
  • 7:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Sources provide you with helpful background information that support your own work. You can find sources both online and in printed materials. There are benefits and drawbacks to each, so you'll need to consider which is best for you and your project.

Using Sources in Research

So, you've designed a research project. That's great! You're probably really excited to get started on your experiment, but there's one more thing you need to do first… research! That's right; before you start doing any data collection, you need to do a bit of background research first. Evaluating other works can help you avoid mistakes in your experimental design and execution, as well as give you a solid foundation from which to base your project.

Sounds easy enough, but this can actually be one of the most challenging aspects of a project. There are so many different sources out there that wading through and reading them can be time consuming and frustrating. The key is to know what to look for and where to look for it, so that you can make this process as efficient as possible and then get on to the fun stuff!

Primary & Secondary Sources

When you're looking for sources, you should first know that a source is any work, creator of a piece of work, or publisher of that work. Already we can see that this includes a lot of options! The second thing is to know that there are two kinds of sources to be familiar with.

The first is a primary source, which is a firsthand source of information. This includes original documents or creative works, relics, and artifacts, eyewitness accounts, etc. The second is a secondary source, which is a source that interprets, analyzes, distributes, or publishes a primary source. This includes scientific journals, editorials, textbooks, and even encyclopedias.

This can be confusing, so let's look at a few examples. A research article written by a scientist would be a primary source because it is the original work written by that person. If they decide to publish it in a scientific journal, that publication is then a secondary source because it no longer comes directly from the original source.

Let's say that you witness a crime committed at a convenience store one night. The police interview you to understand what happened, and now your eyewitness account is a primary source because it comes directly from the person who saw it. But when the police put that interview into a report, that report is now a secondary source because it describes the primary source's interview.

Okay, so now you know what sources are, but where on Earth do you find them? Here comes the tricky part, because you can find them almost anywhere! For scientific purposes, there are two main places we look for sources - in printed materials and online. There are benefits and downsides to both, so let's look a little more closely at each.

Print Sources

Believe it or not, there was a time when people couldn't look things up online! Google searching is a relatively recent phenomenon, as are portable devices like laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Before, people would go to their local library to browse reference materials. This included things like textbooks, books written by subject matter experts, newspapers, and scientific journals. Some of these resources fall under the category of serials because they are published on a regular basis. Newspapers print information daily, and magazines and scientific journals may publish monthly, quarterly, or annually.

You may also find audio and visual materials that are useful for your scientific research. Though printed works are more commonly cited, a video of an expert interview can sometimes be just as useful and relevant to your research project, as can a documentary or other scientific TV program.

Another print source that you may find useful is government publications. Government agencies are often required to provide reports for studies and projects that they undertake, and this is a valuable source of printed information that is usually kept on record for long periods of time.

Print sources have numerous benefits. First, they're kept for long periods of time. This means that you are likely to find a copy of it…somewhere. It may not be in your local library, but chances are some other library has it and can get you a copy upon request. Second, print materials are very well controlled. Once printed on paper, those documents are difficult to change or retract, so they go through a very rigorous screening process to make sure the information is presented correctly the first time.

Searching for a print source can be a labor-intensive process, though. If you don't plan your search ahead of time, you could end up wasting a lot of time looking through materials that aren't helpful to you. The key is to take some time before you begin searching to identify the major concepts and keywords you're looking for and in which types of print sources you're likely to find them. For example, if you're looking for interviews, a scholarly journal isn't going to be much help, but a newspaper might be just the thing you need. Similarly, if you're looking for research articles on shark diets, a journal that is specifically geared toward botany research isn't going to be helpful at all.

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