Looking Closer at Your Sources


Once you’ve found one or two relevant sources, the research conversation around your topic will start to open up and become more clear. Here are some things to look for in the sources you’ve found to help expand and focus your topic and prepare you to start writing.

1) For books, look at the Call #. The library’s print book collection is organized by the Library of Congress Classification System. This system clusters books about similar topics together on the shelf. You can see an outline of the system online to get an idea of how the books in your field are organized.

Classic catalogue example

Try exploring the shelves around the book to see if there are other useful titles. You can also use the Classic Catalogue to browse our shelves electronically.

2) Use the table of contents and the index. Because books can be quite lengthy and detailed, it may be more realistic to aim for using a chapter or a small section of a book, instead of the whole thing. This means finding a book about your general topic and looking at the table of contents to see what chapters might be most relevant. The index at the back will also show you where your specific topic is treated in more detail.

Index example

Don’t be afraid to pull books off the shelf and flip through them. Digging through information in this way is what libraries are all about!

3) For articles, look at the journal title. Not only does the journal title tell you about the circumstances under which the article was published (relationship to scholarly association, peer-reviewed, etc.), but it may also point you to other relevant articles. The fact that the journal published one article about a certain topic signals their interest in sharing academic work in that area. You may even find that other authors have published direct responses to the article in later issues of the journal.

journal title example

The library's journal title search tool will lead you to databases where you can usually search within the journal for your topic. Try broadening or narrowing the scope of your search to see what else the journal offers that may be helpful.

4) Read the abstract. Most academic journal articles will begin with an abstract. This summary will give you the scope of the research article and help you decide if it’s relevant to your topic. Also, you may find other keywords or concepts worth exploring more deeply.

abstract example

Look up definitions or background articles for any unfamiliar concepts in one of the library’s subject encyclopedias (just add you subject area to the search box). Also, note and search for key terms, even if they’re synonyms for keywords you’re already using.

5) Note major sources in the introduction and/or literature review sections. To set the stage for their original research, academic authors will usually summarize previous research about their topic. Combined with the complete bibliography at the end of the article, this section will direct you to many (if not all) of the relevant sources previously published in the field.

Literature review example

Use the library’s search (or journal title search specifically) to locate full-text copies of the articles cited in the literature review.

6) Try to understand the methodology or theoretical approach. While this is often seen as the driest, or in some cases the most difficult, section of an academic work, the methods or theoretical approaches the author uses allow us to see the perspective from which they’re approaching the topic. Here, they’ll outline what phenomena they’re studying and how they’ll frame it, either with scientific method (in sciences and social sciences, generally) or theory (in the humanities and some social sciences).

theoretical approach example

Try searching for your topic, or a related one, along with keywords for the methodology or theory. This can often yield interesting and unexpected sources.

7) Summarize the results, discussion, and conclusion. These sections are the real meat of an academic article. The authors will outline their findings based on the methods they used and discuss what exactly these findings might mean for the wider topic. Often, the main conclusions in the abstract will be restated in more detail. Authors will usually suggest directions for future research. These suggestions can help you to join the research conversation.

conclusion example

Write a good summary of the source’s findings. Make sure these notes clearly indicate which sources said what, as they will form the basis for your writing later on. Also, try searching for articles related to the suggested topics for future research to see if any authors have taken the topic further.