Research source material in Online Education – Elaine Martell, Online Contributor


Research is an important part of education.  The sources that you use for your research will make a big difference in what you learn and the value of the papers that you write from your research.  It is important that you use credible and scholarly resources.


There are basically three types of sources, primary, secondary and tertiary. A primary source is a work that contains the original thought of the author, or the evaluation of original data taken by the author.  Primary sources can include autobiographies, diaries, letters, etc. For example, if you were writing a paper on Augustine of Hippo, a primary source would be The City of God by Aurelius Augustinus. Secondary sources are books and articles written by knowledgeable people which analyze the original material found in primary sources.  Again, using our example, secondary sources for a paper on Augustine would include books written about his life and books and articles which talk about the ideas in his writings.  A tertiary source provides a summary of material gathered from primary and secondary sources.  Tertiary sources include dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. They can provide a useful overview of your subject as you begin your research.


There are several guides available to help you chose valuable secondary and tertiary sources for your research.  One of these is known as the CARS checklist.  This list helps you check the Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness and Support of any given source.  Every source may not meet every qualification, but this is a good place to start.


When considering the credibility of a source you want to consider the author and the publisher. Look at the author’s education, his reputation and his position in the academic community.  If the author is an organization, it should be acknowledged and authoritative in the subject area you are studying.  A credible author will usually provide contact information.  There are publishers that are well known for producing quality materials.  Some well known names in the theological area are Zondervan, Baker Academic, Eerdmans, and Fortress Press.


You want to stay away from sources which are written anonymously or are written in an overly emotional manner.  Quality sources will not exaggerate or use absolutes.  Also, avoid materials which claim to have new, never before disclosed information.


When using online Data bases, such as EBSCO, which is available to Northpoint students, it is important to select the “Peer Reviewed” and “Full Text” options when you enter your search terms.  This will assure complete articles from scholarly journals written by knowledgeable authors.


When considering the accuracy of a source, look for up-to-date facts that cover the subject completely. Remember, however, that in the theological field, some information is timeless. You want material that is written factually, not in a subjective or persuasive manner.  Avoid sources whose statistical facts are not dated or are very one sided. The information should be clear and concise, not consisting of fuzzy generalizations.


You want your sources to be reasonable. As you are reading your source, notice if the ideas that are presented make sense from what you already know about the subject.  Do not use material that contradicts itself.  You want to watch out for material which might be subjective, having a conflict of interest.  An example of this would be Hershey publishing a paper on the benefits of eating chocolate; it would be hard for them to be objective.


The final consideration is the support of the material in your source.   A good source will have a bibliography which will indicate extensive research on the author’s part, and will also indicate the quality of the materials that the author used. The material should agree with information you already know and you will be able to find other material which agrees with this source.


Quality research results from using quality materials.  Whether you use print or online materials, take care in choosing those which provide the most valuable information.