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Expos 20: The Underworld: Basic Research Concepts

A Research Guide

Basic Concepts

The raw, unanalyzed material of scholarship (Harvard Guide to Using Sources). Examples: Novels, diaries, correspondence, posters, data, interviews, government documents, cartoons, films, maps, manuscripts.

Analysis or commentary on a primary source.

"A system of intellectual quality control" (Anderson, p. 64) in which articles and books are evaluated anonymously by other experts (the author's "peers") before being accepted for publication. Articles and books that are peer-reviewed (or "refereed") are considered the most authoritative scholarly publications. But not all scholarly publishers use anonymous peer review; some have an editor, or a team of editors, assess the validity and originality of an article or a book.

A published source that:

  • Cites its sources in notes and bibliographies
  • Is written by a scholar or researcher in the field (how do you know?)
  • Is written in the technical language of the discipline
  • Is aimed at a readership familiar with the terms and concepts of the field
  • May be published by a scholarly or professional association; by a university press (e.g., Harvard University Press); or by a non-university press that specializes in academic books (Brill, Routledge, others)
  • Is usually peer-reviewed
  • Examples: Journals in JSTOR


A published source that:

  • Usually doesn't cite sources formally, but may mention them in passing
  • Is written by an expert in the field or a well-informed journalist or freelance writer
  • Is written in non-technical language
  • Is aimed at a general audience of educated, interested readers
  • Although not peer-reviewed, adheres to standards of accuracy, journalistic ethics, and a clearly-stated editorial policy.
  • Is published by a commercial or nonprofit publisher
  • Examples: The Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Economist


A published source that:

  • Doesn't mention sources, except the names of people being quoted
  • Isn't assigned to a writer based on special knowledge
  • Is written in non-technical language
  • Is written to entertain a general audience and to increase readership
  • May not adhere to standards of accuracy or journalistic ethics
  • Is published by a commercial enterprise
  • Examples: People, National Enquirer, GQ

Evaluating Your Sources

In a research paper, depending on your topic and your instructor's requirements, it's appropriate to use a blend of primary sources, peer-reviewed secondary sources, and other secondary sources written by experts or well-informed journalists. Your primary sources may not necessarily be reliable or truthful accounts; they may even be from publications that would not be considered as valid secondary sources, such as popular magazines and websites.

Examples of these sources are on the right. For more detailed definitions, see Basic Research Concepts.

The Harvard Guide to Using Sources has an excellent, concise summary of the basic principles of evaluating sources for research. These include:

  • The author's credentials or authority
  • The purpose of the source
  • The intended audience
  • The quality of the publisher
  • Currency of information
  • Accuracy and objectivity