Tips to make research easier:
1. When you are new to a topic, it can be helpful to start by reading something short that gives an overview of the topic. Once you understand some basics about the topic, it is easier to find other types of sources. You might be tempted to check Wikipedia for this sort of thing--but perhaps you've figured out that most professors get annoyed when you use Wikipedia as a source!* There are alternatives for gaining a brief introduction to a topic that are considered more credible such as:
- scholarly encyclopedias on specific topics (which may be online)
- a chapter from a book (which may be an ebook)
- sometimes a web page from a professional or scholarly organization
2. After you have "digested" the overview source, you may be ready to look for info on a specific aspect that interests you or want to use a source that covers the topic in more depth.
3. The type of source that will work best can vary for different projects, different situations, and different classes. Sometimes your professor specifies that you should use a particular type of source (such as peer-reviewed articles). Look carefully at assignments to see if you should be using a specific type of source and/or ask your professors questions about the types of sources they expect you to use for that project.
Some advantages of different sources:
Books can be scholarly tomes written to advance the knowledge of experts, or trade books written to help professionals advance in their field, or books written for everyday people who don't know much about the topic area. The last two types of books may be easier for undergraduate students to understand.
But I don't have time to read a whole book. Sometimes it's okay to use a chapter or two from a book in your research. The advantage of books as a source is that they often explain a topic in a more general way that is easier to understand than an article. When you are interested in learning a lot about a topic, you may want to read the entire book. Books can be really useful, as they are often structured in a way that builds your knowledge as you read.
Like books, articles can be scholarly, professional level, or for general readers. Articles are usually about specific aspects of a topic and often don't address the overall topic. The purpose of an article can be to update the reader on something new (newspapers, magazines, trade periodicals), to explain something specific (magazines, trade periodicals), or to attempt to prove something systematically (scholarly journals).
Articles in scholarly journals are the most credible, because the knowledge is developed systematically and they are usually peer-reviewed. Peer-review means that multiple experts on that subject have agreed that the information in the article is valid. These articles focus on very specific aspects of a topic that may have been proved by research. Sometimes they use specialized vocabulary and can be harder to read. Articles from scholarly journals would include Journal of Marketing Research, Academy of Management Review or Journal of Supply Chain Management.
Articles in magazines and trade periodicals are often easier to understand. Because they don't have peer review, the quality of the information can be less certain--but in most cases, articles in magazines and trade periodicals are more reliable than a random web page (although certain web pages can be very reliable--depending on who created the material). Sometimes the magazine article relies on knowledge gained from peer-reviewed articles and these may explain the concepts in more ordinary language, or suggest ways to apply the knowledge to specific professional situations. When the magazine article cites scholarly studies, the credibility is improved. Articles from magazines would include Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, or CIO.
Newspapers and blogs (or other electronic sources) may be the only source of very recent information. Because newpapers are written quickly (so there is less time to check facts or analyze information), the information in newspapers is sometimes wrong. Some newspapers are better than others, because of high professional standards and use of professional journalists. Two better quality newspapers are the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Be careful with these, especially the editorials and letters to the editor, which express opinions that may not be backed up with solid facts or analysis.
Although many blogs and web pages have high quality information; because it is so easy to create a blog or web page (and to do so anonymously), there are also many blogs and web sites with poor quality information. Sometimes it is because the author doesn't have expertise and sometimes the author is purposefully misleading readers. Why would a person on the web lie or mislead you? Perhaps they have something to gain monetarily or politically? Perhaps they have an emotional response to a topic, or they want to persuade people to join their side on an issue? The more controversial your topic, the more likely you will find cases where someone posts something they know is untrue on the web or someone "spouts off" without knowing what they are talking about.
Books and even scholarly articles can also have low quality info and some authors do try to mislead people in books and articles too--but because it is so easy to put junk on the web, there is a awful lot of junk information on the web. Make sure you see who is posting information and what his/her credentials are. If someone does not self identify as an expert, that should lead you to question their credibility. If they do present themselves as an expert, can you verify what they've posted? Where did their degrees come from? Have they got a LinkedIn profile that matches what they posted? Do other credible people post on this site? Are they making money from advertising on this site?
So, is the web always wrong? NO, far from it. The web has lots of quality information, including peer reviewed information, info from experts, and information prepared by professional journalists. The web is a mixture of very good and very bad quality information. You have to be careful and unless you are a topic expert, it can be difficult to tell the good information from the bad. Most undergraduates aren't yet experts on the topics they are studying. That's why your profs (who are experts) come in very handy in choosing material for you to read or suggesting sources to explore.
Some web sources are more consistently reliable:
- Government web sites (often with a .gov address)
- University web sites (often with a .edu address)
- Scholarly and trade organization web sites (sometimes with a .org address)
However, in some of the organization web sites bias can be an issue--especially if it is a political organization.
Wikipedia is tricky. Anyone can be an author on Wikipedia, so many Wikipedia authors are not experts. On the other hand, some may be experts and they might correct bad info. Often the information on Wikipedia is correct, but the possibility that it could be wrong is real. When a topic is controversial, people frequently "tamper" with the article. Wikipedia is constantly changing--this can be good in cases where knowledge is changing; but it can also be problematic to use for class or work purposes, since it could say one thing when you read and cite it--and something entirely different when a reader (like your prof or boss) checks your source! Beyond these real considerations, most professors aren't impressed when students cite Wikipedia --so why cite Wikipedia and risk your grade?
It can take more effort to use books or articles in library databases. When you use the web, it takes effort and time to evaluate whether a web site is reliable. Part of becoming a educated person and a successful professional is learning how to make that effort, so you become an expert in your field.
Your time is valuable. Why waste time reading something that might be wrong? Wouldn't you rather spend time reading something more likely to be correct and professionally useful?