What does finding and using sources entail?
Finding suitable academic sources and using them effectively is an essential aspect of both learning and assessment processes at university. Fundamentally it is the process of locating credible and relevant materials to support your subject area learning through independent study and wider reading and, of course, the research you undertake and use in summative module assessments and general academic projects. You should be aiming to ensure the accuracy, reliability, and validity of the information used in the sources you identify, particularly if you will be using them to support your own arguments and conclusions within your academic work.
Effective searching and sourcing of materials requires you to think about your own search strategies and methods and the digital tools you use which will include Cardiff Met's MetSearch which gives you direct access to the collections, databases and repositories that the university subscribes to (and which your course fees go towards).
It is a valuable skills development and subject learning exercise to spend some time early on in your studies learning the 'science of searching'. Learn to use databases to conduct deep searches and progress your ability to recognise useful library resources, and do so with the aim of identifying materials that have contributed to current academic discourse and align with your research topic.
Develop your understanding of the peer review process, scholarly standards and importantly the reasons why academic rigour is so important at university. Recognise that finding your sources is an important first step which is immediately followed by your own critical evaluation of their credibility and validity. This will involve you considering the author's expertise, the publication date, the validity of the sources or methodologies they have used, whether the source has a reputation within the academic community and importantly whether the author is truly writing objectively and is free of any bias in their judgements and assertions.
All of the above is integral in setting the foundations for your subject learning and successful academic writing in which you are able to demonstrate high levels of knowledge, analysis, understanding and discussion as a result of your sound research.
Where to start?
In terms of developing your searching skills why not head over initially to the various guides linked to further down this page, all of which provide information about the different tools Cardiff Met Library Services provide. These guides introduce the basics of using these tools, highlighting the processes involved and things of note you should be looking out for. You may also wish to explore other parts of the Library's Academic Practice website, as the ability to find and use resources effectively in your learning and assessment requires a range of other interrelated academic skills and practices including critical appraisal and analysis as well as communicating your findings and thoughts with clarity as part of your academic writing. You can also draw on the services of our expert librarians either in person in the either Cyncoed or Llandaff libraries or via our webchat service which can be accessed using the toggle to the left Besides the Library's web resources and skilled staff, our team of academic librarians and academic skills specialists also run a series of workshops that focus on the component processes and skills involved in finding, evaluating and using credible academic sources in both your independent learning and your academic writing.
Why not start by learning a little about using MetSearch properly? MetSearch is a great first port of call since it provides a wealth of information on Cardiff Met Library holdings which should enable you to find some good introductory subject area overviews or indeed some highly specialist research papers if you are feeling fearless! MetSearch also offers a suite of useful tools, utilities and functions for collating, storing and making notes on important sources you identify, it can also send references directly to reference management tools such as EndNote or Zotero in which you can store all your vital research details and digital papers before using them to manage your citations and reference lists when writing assignments or projects.
What should you be looking for?
Important academic sources will of course include requires, recommended and further reading text books found on your module reading lists, but you will also be expected to conduct your own further research of academic sources as part of written assessments, especially dissertations or large projects. You should be actively seeking out influential and specialist academic sources relevant to your topic area. Assessors will expect to see evidence of your engagement with prominent elements of module and course subject matter, you might achieve this by drawing upon different types of evidence including:
- Influential authors: Every academic field regardless of age will have at least a few important authors who have, or are making important contributions to the progression of academic knowledge and understanding. Familiarise yourself with recent and contemporary authors and their works, it won't be too difficult, you will soon begin to recognise their names and their key publications from the regularity with which they appear in the citations of others. It is also likely your lecturer's will highlight such figures, if not go ahead and ask. Evidencing your knowledge of key figures and their ideas and influence is a means of highlighting your subject knowledge to assessors. Name-dropping will get you everywhere in academia!
- Significant books: Influential authors publish significant books (and journal papers). Invest some research time in identifying important publications that have left an indelible mark within your field of study and in doing so consider why these books have made such an impact. What new, unique or ground-breaking proposal does it make> How has it helped people to see the discipline in a new way? What have been the benefits to wider society to have arisen from it? What is its legacy to the subject area, how is it influencing academics, practitioners, the wider world today? Being able to demonstrate that you are not only familiar, but well versed in publications of this nature highlights a deepening knowledge and understanding of core aspects of your subject. If such books are prominent on your module reading list then it would be sensible to invest time in reading them. If however they are not recommended reading bear in mind you can often get a sound picture of the key contents and its importance by reading about the author and their ideas in text books or introductory guides to your topic area.
- Edited volumes: Edited volumes are books usually addressing a fairly specific topic area within a field which contain a range of chapters focused on different aspects of the subject matter, each by different prominent authors from the disciplinary area of study. Edited volumes are often edited by an individual or a team of experts in the field. Edited volumes can be invaluable for a number of reasons:
If you are just starting out, some of the material may be challenging, but you will often find that a moment comes in the future when what you have read suddenly all makes sense when you realise how it relates to another aspect of your learning. Demonstrating your engagement with more specialised forms of academic knowledge and using it where relevant to support your own ideas through critical analysis, evaluation and argument is central to performing well in written assessments.
- firstly they can help you quickly gain insight into the key authors in a field, some will be authors within the book, and those who aren't will be cited and referenced regularly;
- secondly edited volumes usually provide useful overview introductions of a topic area, enabling you to get a quick, but academically sound understanding of key issues, ideas, debates, proposals for example;
- thirdly the chapters within may at times be quite specialist or focussed but in order to be so, chapter authors will often provide succinct summaries of wider understanding that underpins the specialisms they are about to discuss, again a useful way of quickly triangulating summarised information and developing your knowledge of a field;
- fourthly and finally, you will normally find several chapters that spark your interest, having a thorough read of those will help you begin to develop a sense of how disciplinary knowledge can be both wide and broad through the general summarised contexts as well as deep and specialised.
- Journal articles: As with edited volumes, peer-reviewed journal articles are a primary source of specialist academic learning. Key authors or researchers in a field will usually publish their findings, evidence, theories and ideas as well as particularly niche or specialist investigations in respected journals relevant to their field. Journal publication has important benefits for academic authors in that it enables them to get their new ideas published quickly (which can be important if they are competing with others in research projects in the same area), journal articles also offer a mode of writing and publication that enables highly specialised topic areas to be covered succinctly, whilst they also offer a format for raising questions or proposing ideas yet to be fully investigated. Utilise journal articles within your learning and academic writing. Your assessors will want to see your engagement with specialist publications and knowledge and they are great sources of both learning and as source material. Journals also serve as a key platform for academic debate and discussion regarding topics upon which academic consensus has yet to be reached. Reading around such disagreements and debates within your field can be a useful on several levels to you as a learner: firstly it is a great way of getting to grips with the idea that knowledge is not absolute and that we as academic communities create or construct knowledge and it is through eventual consensus that it becomes accepted knowledge; secondly critical debates can be a useful source for discussion within your own academic writing as they provide opportunity for you to demonstrate analysis and evaluation of viewpoints and offer a reasoned conclusion.
- Industry publications: Academic fields related to professional practices or industries will often draw on publications that are relevant to both academic study and its application in the professional arena. Disciplines such as business and management, engineering, education or health care for example will draw on industry publications or trade journals that address the practice based nature of the subject area. These will often be a useful source for gaining information, evidence or data about contemporary issues, innovations or changes occurring in the real world. These are often topic areas academics will wish or need to respond to and of course being able to demonstrate your engagement with such topic areas as part of your research for your own academic writing is another useful means of evidencing a deeper awareness, knowledge and critical understanding of your field.
- Subject-specific encyclopaedias: Early in your studies, these can be a great source for finding concise overviews of important theories, models, methodologies and histories of discovery within academic disciplines. In particular they provide explanations, definitions and terminologies related to specialist topics or branches of research within a field. Use these to gain a quick but meaningful and academically reliable understanding of niche areas of your field of study. Much like the edited volumes discussed above it can often be the case that prominent authors contribute entries, so once again they can be a useful means of familiarising yourself with the key players, central ideas as well as subject-specific terminologies and language. As you set out on your academic journey, such sources can be a great means of both clarifying your understanding for yourself but also as academically sound source material that highlights your engagement with your learning to your assessors. You will often find a range of types of encyclopaedia, from simple off the shelf publications that offer only succinct introductory overviews, through to several volume or digitally published encyclopaedias that contain in depth academic discussion of prominent topics of discussion which reflect contemporary areas of research and investigation. Such publications can be invaluable academic sources for career academics as well as students. Dependent on the depth of a publications coverage they may not always make suitable source material later in your studies, you will need to evaluate that for yourself. Just be aware that using a broadly introductory type may serve to highlight a lack of proper research if used as a key source without more specialist source types alongside it.
Why is it important to you?
Mastering the skill of finding suitable academic sources is central to excellent assessment performance and thus academic success. By becoming competent in finding and evaluating source materials you are better able to ensure the integrity, trustworthiness and validity of the information you encounter and select to learn from or to be used as evidence in assessed work. As highlighted the process of developing your searching and evaluative skills directly contributes to your overall learning and can be an effective practical method of constructing your own mental knowledge architectures, concept maps and information building blocks that serve and elicit deep level learning of your subject area. The simple act of mentally and physically processing names, titles, dates, terms, topic areas as aspects of your searches before collating the useful results is a means of learning in and of itself. You may wish to complement this further by actively note making as you make discoveries, for some the act of hand writing a name or a title of a paper can be a great learning aid of your searches. For others, the process of collating a digital library and associated references in reference management software is an effective method of recognising the patterns of prominent authors and the fields they specialised which of course aids in wider knowledge and understanding.
Effective searching and source appraisal also aids in the development of your own academic ideas, arguments and conclusions whilst also providing an artillery of reliable academic sources with which to support them in writing. Searching and finding, analysing and evaluating are all part of the critical process and engaging fully in it will help cultivate your own capacity for criticality when reading the work of others or constructing your own logical, evidenced critical assertions. As your own learning progresses and your assuredness in your grasp of your subject matter knowledge increases you will find yourself critiquing the academic work of others, your own understanding will enable you to be confident in assessing the reliability (or lack of), the biases (of lack of) and the strength of evidence and argument (or lack of) present in the work of others. All of the above are foundational elements of successful academic learning and practice, finding and using a range of sound academic source materials from different sources and of different types is just the first step in enhancing your ability to engage with and master complex concepts and theories, become adept in applying challenging methodologies and practices as well as becoming supremely proficient in giving your assessors the evidence they need to award you top marks all the way! Go on, give it ago usingMetSearch!
Benefits of developing search and evaluation skills include:
- Information literacy and critical thinking: Being able to evaluate and critique source materials in order to identify those that are biased, unreliable or weak, whilst recognising those that demonstrate validity and thoroughness is both a key academic and professional skill.
- Academic integrity: Through sound searching and evaluative skills you are protecting yourself against the possibility of accidental plagiarism. Having knowledge of and being able to draw upon a range of relevant and credible academic sources demonstrates subject knowledge as well as the academic respect that is inherent in the academic practice of attribution and referencing.
- Referencing and citation: As above the processing, handling and enjoyment of searching, managing and using sources means you will more quickly become familiar and well versed in the processes of referencing and citation.
- Self-regulated study: Learning to find suitable academic sources is a key element of independent learning and directly contributes to your wider subject learning beyond the classroom
- Intellectual curiosity: By exploring your subject beyond the classroom you will find sources and subjects that spark your interest further, encouraging further investigation and understanding which can serve to consolidate module learning
- Learning confidence: The engagement with academic materials and the deeper subject learning it elicits brings greater confidence in your own capabilities encouraging and inspiring you to contribute meaningfully to ongoing academic conversations and discourse within your field.
- Learning enjoyment: Discovering new knowledge, especially in regard to something we are passionate about or have an interest is enjoyable. Approaching your studies in this manner will enrich and benefit your student experience and academic results.
- Learning mastery: The capacity to discovering and identify appropriate learning materials underpins and learning endeavour, effective searching and evaluative skills will enable a lifetime of ongoing learning!
- Research readiness: mastering the science of searching early on will provide you with both foundational skills and subject knowledge for future research endeavours, be they a final year dissertation, fulfilling your dream of gaining a PhD one day or as an aspect of a professional career.
- Flexibility and discernment: In an increasingly complex world in part characterised by the increasing proliferation of information, the ability to implement and adapt search strategies in order to process large amounts in order to identify the important and relevant data is an increasingly sought after skillset.
There are several acronym based models that can be useful in learning and remembering the key steps and considerations you should make when evaluating a source for relevance and reliability. Take a look at those below and you will see the common questions and tests involved in an initial analysis of a source. These methods are a effective means of quickly assessing which sources are worth pursuing further and which can be discarded.
You really need to be asking the all important question - Are my sources CRAAP?
As discussed in depth above, in order for your own academic work to be reliable and and assertive in the arguments you are making, you need to ensure the source materials you are using are credible and valid, which means assessing them for currency, relevance and impartiality. A simple approach is to apply the CRAAP test, if they pass they are through to the next round, if not? Well, you can discard them for being CRAAP.
- Currency: When was the information published, revised, posted, or updated?
- Relevancy: Does the information relate to your topic, or answer the question?
- Authority: Who is the source? What are their credentials?
- Accuracy: Is the information provided supported by evidence, statistics, etc? Can these be easily verified?
- Purpose: What's the purpose of the information? For example, to educate, to sell, to entertain?
Download the CRAAP source evaluation worksheet produced by the original author of the model
You really need to be asking the all important question - Is this source on my RADAR?
This second acronym based model for evaluation probes a little deeper in my opinion and asks the types of critical questions you should be asking of any source when undertaking academic reading.
- Rationale: Rationale and motivation shape the content and purpose of books, articles and web pages. No information is completely devoid of bias, as an author's perspective will invariably influence their work. Individuals are motivated to publish works or create online content for all manner of reasons, from doing so with genuine educational intent, or as means of entertainment or as an avenue for generating profit, right the way through to more nefarious motivations including seeking to influence people in negative ways. Authors with commercial interests will sometimes give the customer what they want at the expense of impartiality or hard evidence, others may seek to obscure their biases. Ultimately, diverse, varied or obscure viewpoints can still be perfectly valid as long as they are grounded in solid reasoning and supported by evidence. In the end it is the responsibility of the reader to approach information critically and be discerning in their evaluation of sources.
- Authority: The concept of authority holds significant weight when assessing the credibility of an author's claims. Experience, expertise and specialist knowledge will always hold far greater command and be viewed as far more trustworthy and reliable that someone who does not share a similar reputation, regardless of their claims.
- Date: Noting the date and ensuring currency within research is important due to the speed with which academic fields of study progress. Outdated data or facts that have been surpassed by more recent research or events can substantially weaken an academic argument's validity. It's worth noting however that, certain publications can stand the test of time and that older materials can still be valuable, particularly when addressing a historical context or an overview of the topic. The relevance of a source's date can vary across academic disciplines, the type of knowledge, the subject, its real world applicability and the speed with which the field moves can all influence the extent to which currency is important.
- Accuracy: Accuracy serves as a foundation for credibility, trust, and informed decision-making. Providing accurate information within academic writing ensures constructive communication that is clear and concise ensuring misunderstandings and confusion does not occur. Within academia, the need to be accurate is an obligation that upholds notions of academic integrity. and the process of peer-review.
- Relevance: Relevance dictates the alignment of information with the subject matter at hand. When presenting ideas, it is essential to substantiate them with information that directly pertains to the topic and avoids confusing matters. Maintaining relevance ensures coherent meaningful communication.
Download the RADAR worksheet produced by the original author of the model