Ninja Research Skills (Part 2)
Read Part 1
When researching, how do you know if the information is credible? Choose and analyze sources properly. Different sources have different uses.
Here is the Ninja Quick Guide to choosing the right sources.
Magazines often contain good information about current events. That said, be careful about your choice of magazine. Tabloids like the ones in grocery stores are not reliable sources.(Shocking, I know!) Choose more credible magazines like World or Time for research.
Make a distinction between an article describing what is currently happening and an article providing someone’s opinion of what is happening. Typically, when a TV or movie personality writes about political events, the article is that person’s opinion—not a reliable source of information.
Magazines are useful for pop culture trends. If you are doing a paper on popular diets, for example, magazines are generally full of the latest ones. Look through issues of the same magazine from a previous decade and see how things change (or don’t)!
The purpose of some magazines such as Popular Mechanics or Popular Science is to make somewhat more scholarly information easily accessible to the general public. These can be good sources, but keep in mind that they are not as heavily researched or scrutinized as Journals.
Academic journals are typically very reliable sources of information because they are written by scholars, reviewed and edited by scholars, and read by scholars. When researching, they can be a good source of information. The down side, however, is that they can be difficult to understand unless you already know something about the topic. Journal articles typically have a good bibliography, which is useful for finding other sources. Peruse them also just to discover what has been researched on the topic already.
Newspapers are good sources of information for local, national, and international events. They’re also useful for finding opinions (both popular and expert) and commentaries on various subjects. Look at the editorials pages(s).
Books are a vital part of research. In a good book, one should find accurate, detailed information on a topic. The quality of the book is the key factor. There are many things look at to determine a book’s reliability.
1. Check the author’s credentials. Does he/she have a degree? If so, what level (Bachelors, masters, doctorate, etc.)? What is his experience with the topic? If a person does not have a degree, but has a lot of personal experience with the topic, he is usually qualified to write on it.
2. Check the preface and look at the back to see who endorsed the book. Are these people good sources with either degrees or wide experience in the field?
3. Check the author’s bibliography to see if he had good sources for his own research. Did he use good first-hand sources or only second hand sources? You can also track down the author’s research to do your own.
4. Check for biases when dealing with controversial topics. A book on the Vietnam War written by a pacifist will likely record information differently then one written by a veteran.
5. Look at the copyright date and at the publisher for clues as to quality and accuracy.
Encyclopedias are typically a reliable source of information. Most only find a broad overview of any given topic but these concise explanations can provide good background research for your topic. They may point to main ideas and concepts worthy of additional research.
The Catalog and Periodical Index
Each library will have a catalog – detailing what resources the library owns and where to find them. Many libraries also have a periodical index, which help locate articles in magazines, journals, and newspapers kept on file.
The internet is a fast source of information – when using reliable sites. Keep in mind that anyone can post something and call it “fact.” There are several ways of being able to tell if a source is reliable.
1. Who sponsors the website? Is it an official institution or credible individual?
2. Does the information have an author listed? If not, don’t use it unless it is backed by a legitimate institution. If the author is named, look him up. Check to see if he is credible to speak to the topic. Credibility is usually based on education. If he has a PHD in his field, he should be reliable. If he has a Masters or a Bachelors degree he may also be a reliable source. Don’t cite someone who writes about the topic as a hobby. Credibility can also be based on a person’s experience in the field. If you are doing a paper on Islam, for example, a person who is (or was) a Muslim would be a credible source (regardless of education).
3. Look for a bibliography of sources the author used—it will show he did research.
4. Again, check for biases when dealing with controversial topics.
Often, a person’s letters and other documents are kept on file. C. S. Lewis, for instance, had a large record of letters which can be cited as primary source material. Your own personal correspondence with a witness or expert (either through e-mail, snail mail, or interview) is also fantastic source.
2 Rules of Thumb
1. Try to use first-hand rather than second-hand sources. First-hand sources can be hard to find or non-existent. But if you are doing a research paper on the philosophy of Plato, for example, try to quote Plato more often than you quote commentaries about him.
2. When doing scientific or archeological research, be wary of outdated sources. New discoveries in these fields are made constantly. Although you can still quote old books in order to show what was believed, you will want more up to date material to show what is now believed to be fact. An encyclopedia published in 1966 is not a reliable source for research on the atom.
Do you have a favorite research source? Please share!
In our next post we’ll dig into resources from
Atlases to Quotations in our quest for
Ninja Research Skills in: Raising a Life-Long Learner.
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