Finding source material for your essays

Finding quality material for your essays can be daunting. The Internet is made up of at least 7.74 billion web pages and content is added freely by billions of contributors every day. Unsurprisingly then, much of it is inaccurate, out of date and not good enough to be used as an authority for your work. So where do you start?

Step one – know what you need to find

Before you begin, it’s important to clarify what you’re being asked to do. Carefully read the instructions in your course materials. So many marks are lost by students who answer the wrong question, miss parts of the question or misunderstand what it is that the assignment requires of them.

Once you’re happy with the task in hand, think carefully – what do you already know? Are there gaps in your knowledge? What do you need to find out? You may know the answer to your assignment but you’ll be expected to find quality sources to back up what you’ve said.

Make sure you’re clear about the type of information you’re being asked to find. For example, most universities will give you access to an online library. Typically, this will include:

  • ebooks – just like regular books but available online
  • ejournals – like magazines, but ejournals are available on the Internet – however, the content is typically high quality
  • articles – journals contain several articles which have been written by expert academics
  • databases – these are searchable collections of ejournals or ebooks

Step 2 – looking in the right places

There are plenty of sources so which are the best to find good material? Of course the most obvious way is to do a quick search on Google. By doing an initial search on the Internet, you’ll get ideas about the topic and may see sources you wouldn’t otherwise have gone looking for. But bear in mind the need to evaluate what you find for credibility

Perhaps a better place to start is by following up relevant references contained in your course materials. These are approved by your university so are certainly quality sources! To find the full text of journal articles, look at your university’s online library guide and see how to do a search. All are a bit different but often searching in databases for the author name and a few words from the title of the journal will bring you results.

If you find a relevant journal, check the references. Follow them up. This is called “snowballing your reading’ and is a great way to find related journals for source material.

Check if your online library has a one stop search that allows you to check a range of publications in one go. This makes searching for journals and ebooks really quick and easy.

Another way to get ideas is by looking at the subject pages of your online library, which will often give you a selection of relevant, popular books, journals and databases for your discipline or topic.

A news database like Nexis is a great way to find recent developments on your topic. You’ll often find you have access through your university / athens password.

Stuck for sources?

If you’re not lucky enough to have access to good sources through your learning institution, here’s some ways around that:

  • Google Books offers millions of books free online which you can search through.
  • Google Play offers millions of ebooks (paid)
  • If you’ve ever bought anything from Amazon, you should have access to “search inside’ on millions of books – so it’s easy to find credible sources for your essay on there!
  • Questia is a low cost academic source service – offering “the World’s largest online collection of books and journal articles in the humanities and social sciences, plus magazine and newspaper articles”.  It offers very good value for money.
  • Websites like offer thousands of online essays that you can view for free, giving you more ideas.  Do check the accuracy of what you find though as they are often essays contributed by students.

Step 3 – evaluating what you find

As the Internet is so big and databases contain millions upon millions of journals, unsurprisingly, you’ll have too much material to play with and will need to filter your results to weed out irrelevant information.

A quick way of judging the quality and relevance of information you find on the web is to ask: Who? Why? When? :

1. Who put the information there (who owns the site)?

2. Why did they create the site?

3. When was the site last updated?

For journal articles, peer review can provide a guide to academic quality, but you should still carry out your own evaluation, to be sure the information meets your needs.

Using the internet for plagiarismAs you find information, keep a careful record of what you found and where, so you don’t mix up your writing with the sources.  This can lead to being accused of plagiarism.  Don’t forget to run your work through the free plagiarism checker, to make sure you haven’t accidentally copied and pasted from another source without giving due credit!

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