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Library DIY: Using Sources

How do I make sure I'm understanding the source well enough to use it in my paper?

Reading and understanding academic sources can be one of the most challenging parts of the research process. Even if you're reading popular or general sources, close reading requires critical thinking and analysis. 

When you're reading, you'll want to try to understand the source on multiple levels.

  1. Understanding what individual words and sentences mean.
  2. Understanding what argument and the evidence presented.
  3. Understanding the context, audience, scope, and purpose.

 

This can be challenging, especially if you're trying to work on all three levels at once.

Ideally, you'll read a source three times, focusing on each element respectively in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd read-throughs.  This takes time, so it is best to start your research early. 

Level 1: Understanding at the word and sentence level

We often take for granted our ability to understand the meaning of words from context clues. Most of the time this will serve us well, but academic papers use a lot of specialized language and assume that the audience is primarily other academic experts. 

How do you make sure that you understand what you are reading at the word and sentence level?

When you are reading an academic article, underline any words that you do not understand. 

Stop after each paragraph and look up those words, then go back and re-read the text

Academic sources can be difficult to read. Take your time, try not to get frustrated, and open up a new tab in your browser to look up words and phrases that are unfamiliar to you

Level 2: Understanding the argument and evidence

Once you have an understanding of the words, terms, and phrases being used you will have the foundation to take a closer look at the content of the article.

Here are some ways to gain a better understanding of the content:

  • Write an outline of the article
    • What is the main point of each section or paragraph?
    • How does it relate to the section or paragraph before and after it?
    • What evidence is presented in each section or paragraph?
  • Take notes while you read
    • Highlight sentences or phrases that present specific arguments or evidence.
    • Write down any connections you see between the article and other articles you've read on the topic or discussions you've had in class.
    • Write down any questions you have while you are reading.  When you finish, see if you can find answers in the text.  If you can't, consider doing further research or bring those questions to your professor.
  • Re-state the main arguments of the article - write a one-paragraph summary of the article.

Level 3: Understanding Context, Audience, Scope, and Purpose

While the first level of reading helps you understand what the author is saying, and the second helps you identify what they mean, the third level helps you analyze and contextualize the source so that you can respond to it.

Context

  • When was the article written?
  • Where was it published?
  • What else was written around the same time on the topic?
  • What else was written in the same journal issue?
  • What else has that author written? 

Audience/Purpose

  • Who is the author writing for?
  • What is the purpose
    • What argument are they making?
    • What do they want the audience to learn?
    • What action do they want the audience to take?

Scope

  • What particular part of the issue or topic are they covering?
  • Do they mention larger/smaller parts of the issue or related issues?
  • Do they address counter-arguments?

 

One way tool you can use to help you consider these questions is the below table (download it using the link below).  Fill out this table as you read and reflect on what you have read.  Save this information for each article you read as you complete your research and use it as you write your paper.

Title

Publication date

Publisher

Author name

     Author background

     Potential author bias

     What other topics have they     

     written on?        

Audience

Argument

     Thesis or Hypothesis

     Who or what are they arguing            for?

     Who or what are they arguing    

     against?

     How do they address or dismiss 

     potential criticisms or

     counter-arguments?       

What action does the author want readers to take?       

Personal Response

     What questions do I have?

     What else do I need to learn?

     What was the most useful item       in this article?