Using the Best Sources

The Information Cycle is the progression of media coverage through different types of sources involving a single event. Understanding the Information Cycle helps you understand where you are likely to find information on your topic, which can make finding resources much easier.

The Day of an Event

Television, Social Media, and the Web

  • The who, what, why, and where of an event
  • Quick and regularly updated
  • May lack important details
  • Usually intended for general audiences
  • Authors will have widely varying levels of expertise and authority
  • Intended for general audiences

The Day After an Event


  • More detailed explanations and analyses of the event begin to appear
  • More factual information including statistics, graphics, quotes, or photographs
  • Authors are journalists, may contain interviews from subject matter experts
  • Intended for general audiences

The Week(s) After an Event

Popular and News Magazines

  • Long form content begins to discuss societal, cultural, and public policy implications
  • More detailed perspectives and analysis continue to emerge
  • Authors with stronger expertise, including scholars
  • Intended for a general audience or specific nonprofessional groups

Six Months to One Year

Academic, Scholarly Journals

  • Detailed analysis, theoretical, and/or empirical research
  • May be peer-reviewed, indicating accuracy and credibility
  • Authors are scholars, researchers, and professionals
  • Intended for an audience of scholars, researchers, and university students

Several Years After


  • In-depth coverage ranging from scholarly in-depth analysis to popular books for general audiences
  • Authors range widely from scholars to professionals to journalists
  • Includes reference books that provide factual information, overviews, and summaries

Government Reports

  • Reports from federal, state, and local governments
  • Authors include governmental panels, organizations, and committees
  • Often focused on public policy, legislation, and statistical analysis

There are many different types of sources that you can use for a research assignment. Depending on the type of information you need, certain sources are better to use than others. Below is a description of the most common types of sources that you will use for a research assignment. Each description identifies what the source is used for, its advantages, and disadvantages.

When conducting research for an assignment, it's important to note that some assignments explicitly specify that you must use a certain type of source. For example, it is common for an assignment to require that a certain number of your sources be scholarly journal articles, or that you are limited to using only a specific number of websites.

Encyclopedias & Reference Sources


  • Encyclopedias and reference sources provide broad overviews of topics.
  • Excellent sources for background information, or when you're unfamiliar with the topic.
  • Can provide topics and subtopics for additional research.


  • A lot of information found in a single location.
  • Usually written in a concise manner, which makes finding information simple.
  • Written and edited by professionals, ensuring accuracy and credibility.


  • It can take a long time to be published and updated. Information may have changed since publication, depending on the topic.



  • Provides in-depth analyses and overviews of a topic.


  • Provide historical context, overview, and summation.
  • Often include synthesis and analysis of previous research.
  • Many books are written by scholars and experts, making them authoritative and reliable.
  • Many include extensive bibliographies listing additional resources on the topic.


  • Even the most recently published books may not contain the most current information.
  • A single book may cover a wide range of topics. You may need to look through the table of contents or index to determine whether a book includes information on your topic.

Scholarly Articles


  • An in-depth treatment of specific issues, theories, phenomena, or research questions.
  • Often involve experiments, original data, and interpretations of research projects.


  • Written by experts and scholars.
  • Often provide data, formulas, and research methodologies.
  • Usually includes a bibliography of additional resources on the topic.
  • Many have gone through the peer review process to ensure accuracy and reliability.


  • Language and content is intended for experts and researchers, which can make reading and comprehension difficult.
  • Articles may cover a very narrow aspect of a larger topic, requiring the use of additional resources to fully explore and address your topic.

News & Magazine Articles

This includes popular or mass media publications, news analyses, and opinion publications designed to inform and entertain.


  • Contain the most recent news and initial analysis on a topic.
  • Track reporting or public perception of a topic over time.
  • Often contain reporting of government or business practices, policies, and activities.


  • Usually short to medium in length.
  • Created for general audiences, making them easier to read.
  • Provide local news coverage not available elsewhere.
  • Provide a view of current events and popular culture.


  • Magazines and news articles are NOT sources of scholarly research.
  • Authors are usually journalists, not researchers or experts.
  • Facts and opinions may not be supported with cited sources.



  • Provide access to a wide variety of sources including news, government department/agency information, professional or representational associations, and popular culture.


  • Easy to find through search engines.
  • Rarely difficult to find sites with relevant information.


  • Often little to no quality control.
  • The information provided is often inaccurate or not verifiable.
  • The author is either unknown or lacks authority and expertise.

You may have a research assignment that requires you to use either primary or secondary sources. It is important to understand the difference and be able to distinguish between them.

Primary Sources

  • Sources that you interpret yourself.
  • You determine the meaning and communicate it to your audience.
  • Examples: Raw experiment data, an interview, an autobiography, government documents, data sets, social media.

Secondary Sources

  • Sources that someone else has interpreted for you.
  • Secondary sources allow you to learn about different subjects without doing extensive research and interpretation on your own.
  • Examples: A scholarly journal article that draws conclusions about experimental data, a biography, or a book examining contemporary politics.

Critial Thinking & Intended Use

When using either a primary or secondary source, even scholarly sources written by experts, you must think critically about the information being given. For example, are there flaws in the data, methodologies, conclusions, or logic?

How you plan to use information from a resource helps determine whether a resource is acceptable to use. Some resources are intended primarily to be used as primary source, while others should be used as a secondary source. Here are two examples to illustrate this:

  • If you are reading a book about the history of labor unions in order to gain a broad understanding of the subject, you are using the book as a Secondary Source.
    • The important factor here is you are relying on the author to help you draw conclusions. Your argument or understanding of the topic is dependent on the expertise and reflections of the author.
  • If you are analyzing labor union statistics from the last ten years in order to determine which industries have the most labor unions, you are using the statistics as a Primary Source.
    • In this case, you are using the statistics to draw your own conclusion. There is no expert or other author that you are basing your opinions on.

When it comes to quality, not all sources are created equal. Some sources are more reliable than others, while some are outright unfit for use in a college-level assignment. This means diligence is required when evaluating resources, to ensure the use of only high-quality, reliable sources created by experts with established authority related to your topic.

The criteria below provide a popular way to evaluate a source. Currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose, are all contributing factors that must be examined when determining whether a specific source is fit for use.

Each category includes several questions that you can ask yourself when evaluating a source. The more negative answers, the less reliable that source is. There is no 'threshold' or specific number of negative answers that 'disqualifies' a source. Instead, you must rely on your intuition and experience evaluating other sources, to determine whether or not you think the source in question meets your standards.

Currency: The timeliness of the information

  • When was the information published?
  • Has the information been updated or revised?
  • Is the information current or out-of-date?
  • If there are links, are they functional?

Relevance: The importance of the information for your needs

  • Does the information relate to the topic and/or answer the question?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the information designed for an appropriate level?
  • Have you looked at multiple sources before choosing this one?
  • Would you be comfortable using this source for your research assignment?

Authority: The source of the information

  • Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
  • Are their credentials or organizational affiliations given?
  • If they are provided, what are they?
  • Ar the qualifications related to the topic they are writing on?
  • Is there contact information for the author?
  • If it's a website, does the URL reveal anything about the source?

Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content

  • Where does the information come from?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been reviewed or edited?
  • Can you verify the information from a different source?
  • Does it seem to be free of emotion and unbiased?
  • Are there spelling, grammar, or other errors?

Purpose: The reason the information exists

  • What is the purpose of the information?
  • Does the author make their intentions or purpose clear?
  • Is the information factual? Opinion? Propaganda?
  • Does their point of view appear objective and impartial?
  • Are there any political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases?