Sources Guide

I. Introduction

What is in this Sources Guide? This Sources Guide is designed to help you understand the nature of historical literature and how you need to evaluate it. It is a complement to the course outline and provides you with the information you need to succeed in this history course. You are responsible for understanding the material in this Sources Guide, which contains the following information:

  • A definition of plagiarism, a few examples, and a list of consequences
  • A brief summary of tertiary, secondary, and primary sources
  • An explanation of the difference between popular and scholarly sources
  • A look at peer review and ways to evaluate the credibility of your sources

II. Source Tips

1. Academic Integrity

Students and professors are held to high standards of academic integrity. Providing credit where credit is due with our sources is central to research and teaching at the university level and to any career path you may take.

a. Plagiarism

What is plagiarism? Plagiarism is a combination of dishonest behaviour and thievery, defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as the “action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own.” There are two general types of plagiarism, both of which are serious academic offenses:

  • Intentional plagiarism. When an individual intentionally passes off another piece of writing as their own, whether a few sentences or an entire paragraph, chapter, or book. In a nutshell, they are trying to deceive their readers with ulterior motives.
  • Unintentional plagiarism. When an individual unintentionally fails to follow proper scholarly procedures, which usually consists of the omission of quotes and proper citations from their work. Put differently, their careless ignorance of academic standards turned them into literary thieves.

What are a few examples of plagiarism? There are several forms of plagiarism and, believe or not, you can even plagiarize yourself. If you have any doubts about whether you have plagiarized in your work, speak with your professor or a librarian. Always err on the side of more citations than less. A few examples of plagiarism are:

  • Cutting and pasting from Wikipedia or any other source
  • Paraphrasing someone else too closely by simply replacing their words with synonyms (known as patchwriting)
  • Reusing your own work for a different assignment (recycling papers)
  • Including a bibliography at the end of your paper without footnotes
  • Using any source (whether common knowledge or not) without citing

How can I avoid plagiarism? If you are an individual who believes in honesty and fairness, you are in a great position to avoid plagiarism. Beyond academic integrity, there are a few other practical steps you can take. Make sure that you start your research early and that you take good notes, diligently distinguishing between your own words and those of the authors you are citing. You also need to establish an organized manner of arranging and storing your research notes and data. For more on plagiarism, you should familiarize yourself with your university’s policies and look at the definitions of plagiarism and patchwriting on The Citation Project.

What are the consequences of plagiarism? Plagiarism is a serious offense, one that can get you expelled from your university community. To think about it in another way, you will lose time, money, and credibility, thus making it difficult for you to find future employment. To avoid academic discipline, you should review your university policies on student conduct. Be mindful that plagiarism has caused high-profile individuals to lose their jobs and to be subject to public shame, much like the former director of the Toronto District School Board.

2. Historical Literature

Historical literature comes in many forms. Since your instructor will expect you to know the types of sources used in historical research, you need a general overview of what you will find in the library and online.

a. Historical Sources

What is historical literature? Historical literature is a series of published sources – often with academic presses or scholarly publishing houses – in which historians formally share about their research. It can be divided into three general categories: (1) tertiary sources, (2) secondary sources, (3) and primary sources. These categories, however, are defined differently in the sciences, and the lines between tertiary and secondary sources are not always clear (depending on the context, encyclopaedias, textbooks, and handbooks can also be considered secondary sources). The key takeaway is that both tertiary and secondary sources are useful forms of background literature on any given subject.

What is a tertiary source? Tertiary sources summarize and synthesize primary and secondary sources. They are usually finding aids that provide you with background information or lists of primary and secondary sources on a topic. In most cases, you would not cite tertiary sources in your papers. A few examples of tertiary sources are:

  • Encyclopaedias. Summaries of knowledge of a field or discipline in the form of short essays, usually ordered alphabetically.
  • Textbooks. Compilations of knowledge on a given subject, normally extensive overviews created for educational purposes.
  • Handbooks. Concise collections of knowledge on a given subject, designed for quick reference and not to be read from start to finish.
  • Indexes. Finding guides to the literature of a given subject, often divided into two sections organized by author and subject (same term refers to lists of names, places, and subjects at the end of a written work).
  • Bibliographies. Listings of books relevant to a given subject or author, published serially or as a book (same term refers to listings of sources at the end of articles or books).

What is a secondary source? Secondary sources analyze, describe, interpret, and summarize primary sources; they are interpretations by authors who did not experience firsthand the history they are writing about. Having said this, it is important to remember that over time secondary sources can also be used as primary sources. A scholar writing in 2019 about the French Revolution is clearly writing a secondary source about an eighteenth-century event, but this scholar’s 2019 book may become a primary source for another scholar writing in 2200 about historiographic trends on the French Revolution in the 2010s. A few examples of secondary sources are:

  • Monographs. Books about a subject published once, unless reissued in a new edition.
  • Scholarly journal articles. Studies written in prose on a narrowly defined topic and published in recognized scholarly journals (which are issued on regular intervals).
  • Edited volumes. Books edited by an editor(s) with chapters written by various authors.
  • Book chapters. Separate chapters of edited volumes.
  • Conference papers. A product of original research delivered orally at a conference, which may be published in its proceedings.
  • Dissertations and theses. A scholarly study on a specialized topic submitted to a university in fulfillment of the requirements for a Ph.D. (dissertation) or M.A. (thesis).

What is a primary source? Primary sources are written documents, oral testimonies, visual objects, and digital materials produced by authors and artists from the historical period you are studying. Historians normally work with primary sources in archives, which are specialized repositories that store and provide access to various types of records (and sometimes artifacts). Put in another way, archives primarily house sources for which only one copy exists, and which have not been published. Other primary sources are available in published form, meaning there are numerous copies available in libraries and personal collections. In some cases, a primary source might be a novel or a sermon that was published and has gone through multiple editions. In other cases, historians transcribe, translate, edit, and publish manuscripts as single texts or in primary source readers, thus making them available and more accessible to a larger public. A few examples of primary sources are:

  • Written. Histories, diaries, notebooks, lists, telegrams, letters, government records, church records, minutes, wills, testaments, and newspapers.
  • Oral. Recorded interviews on audiotapes and videotapes or in other digital forms. Some oral histories are transcribed and made available in print.
  • Visual. Paintings, sculptures, maps, drawings, buildings, films, clothing, blankets, photographs, and archaeological materials (arrows, pottery, etc.).
  • Digital. Websites, blogs, and social media platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

3. Information Evaluation

While there are millions of sources to choose from in library search engines and databases, not everything is relevant. Learning how to evaluate information is central to the research process, for just because something is written down does not mean it is authoritative.

a. Scholarly vs. Popular Sources

What is a scholarly source? Scholarly sources are written by reputable experts in a given field, usually professors at universities and colleges but also graduate students and other researchers. In most cases, they are peer-reviewed, designed for a specialized audience, and published in scholarly journals or as academic books. Scholarly sources always provide references, both at the end with a reference list, bibliography, or endnotes and throughout with in-text citations and footnotes. Having said this, some popular histories are still considered scholarly sources even if they were produced outside of academia and did not go through peer review.

What is a popular source? Popular sources are often written by generalists like journalists, freelance writers, and bloggers. Since they are not specialists, they write for the general public using everyday language that is accessible to a larger base of people. In most cases, popular sources are only reviewed by in-house editors and published in magazines and newspapers that are accompanied by glossy images and advertisements. Popular sources usually do not have citations and, in certain cases, are entirely anonymous.

How can I tell the difference between scholarly and popular sources? While it is okay to turn to popular sources as an introduction to a given topic, your professors will expect you to use scholarly sources in your coursework and research. Below is a chart with a series of questions to help you distinguish between scholarly and popular sources.

 Scholarly SourcesPopular Sources
PurposeWas it written to share original research? Was it written to synthesize the state of research in a given field?Was it written to be informative or entertaining?
AuthorshipDoes the author(s) have credentials like a PhD? Is the author(s) affiliated with a college, university, or research institute?Is the name of the author(s) provided? Is the author(s) a journalist, freelance writer, or blogger?
AudienceWas it written for scholars familiar with the technical language of a particular field?Was it written in a more simplistic language and geared towards a broad audience?
LanguageIs the language complex with specialized terminology?Is the language simple and geared towards a more general audience?
Publishing HouseIs the scholarly journal or book published by a university press or scholarly association?Is the book or journal published by a popular press? Is the work filled with advertisements and other graphics?
ReferencesDoes the work include a bibliography, reference list, footnotes, endnotes, or in-text citations?Does the work include any citations throughout or references at the end?
b. Peer Review

What is peer review? Peer review (refereeing) is a process whereby a book or scholarly journal article is evaluated by experts in a given field to determine whether it is worthy of publication. Those who review these materials (referees) detect errors and bar work of lesser quality from reaching the larger scholarly community. Referees base their decisions on the following criteria:

  • Quality. Is the article well-written and free of errors? Are the conclusions of the article an accurate interpretation of the results? Is the article worthy of publication?
  • Relevance. Will the article be of interest for its intended audience? Does the article address issues that are important to its given field?
  • Originality. Does the article contribute something new to the body of knowledge in a given field? Do the findings of the article alter the way in which a given topic has been traditionally understood?
  • Appropriateness. Does the article match the focus of a given publishing house or scholarly journal? Will the content of the article complement other articles published in the same issue?

How do I tell if something is peer-reviewed? All peer-reviewed sources are scholarly, but not all scholarly sources are peer-reviewed. Although both works can be of high quality, you still need to be able to differentiate between the two. Not only this, it is important to remember that everything included in a peer-reviewed journal has not necessarily been subject to peer review. For example, book reviews and letters to the editor never undergo peer review. Here are a few ways in which you can tell if a scholarly journal article has gone through the peer review process:

  • Databases. Limit the results of your searches to only peer-reviewed materials.
  • Journals. Look at lists of reviewers in the front matter of a journal or statements of when an article was received and accepted for publication on the first or final page.
  • Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory. Type the name of the scholarly journal into the search box of Ulrichsweb. If there is a match for your search, it will indicate whether the journal is peer-reviewed.

How can I tell if a source is credible? There are various ways in which you can assess the credibility and authority of your sources. One of them is CRAAP, a test designed to evaluate the reliability of scholarly sources across various academic disciplines. The acronym – first developed by Sarah Blakeslee – stands for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. When you read through a given source, ask yourself the following set of questions:

Currency: The timeliness of the information.

  • When was the information published or posted?
  • Has the information been revised or updated?
  • Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well?
  • Are the links functional?

Relevance: The importance of the information for your needs.

  • Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
  • Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining this is the one you will use?
  • Would you be comfortable citing this source in your research paper?

Authority: The source of the information.

  • Who is the author / publisher / source / sponsor?
  • What are the author’s credentials or organizational affiliations?
  • Is the author qualified to write on the topic?
  • Is there contact information, such as a publisher or email address?
  • Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source (examples: .com .edu .gov .org .net)?

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

  • Where does the information come from? Are there references?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
  • Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
  • Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion?
  • Are there spelling, grammar, or typographical errors?

Purpose: The reason the information exists.

  • What is the purpose of the information? Is it to inform, teach, sell, entertain, or persuade?
  • Do the authors / sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear?
  • Is the information fact, opinion, or propaganda?
  • Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
  • Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases?

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