To Read or Not to Read: How to Choose Suitable Scholarly Sources

Back in the days when you had to go to the library and search through the table of contents of tens or even hundreds of scholarly journals, the sources available were limited by access, time and restricted by choice. You had to rely on the title of the article, the topic of the journal or even just the historical focus of the author. Then you would have to read the abstract in order to assess its value to your study. With today’s technology and the progression of online databases for peer reviewed journals, publications and library catalogues, coupled with the now commonplace use of electronic documents, the researcher now suffers from too much choice. The world has expanded tenfold from what was researchable as little as ten years ago thanks to the World Wide Web. When faced with the problem of “too much choice”, how can we filter quickly through the results of a simple database search that may provide over 10,000 matches? This blog will outline the easiest and quickest way to continue your research journey without wasting time on reading articles that are vaguely related to your study or not at all.

As part of my post-graduate Directed Study course (ARCH8404) at Flinders University, I am doing independent research with the aim of producing a professional, industry standard field report in my field of maritime archaeology. While my focus is very specific, the guidelines outlined in this blog are applicable to any research project. I use these same tips for compiling my thesis literature review and Directed Study reference list.

1)      Plan your work and work your plan.

The source finding process can be painless by developing an effective strategy (Hays et al. 2012:54). This means that you have your research question and aims compiled before you start searching for sources. Have a checklist of the types of data you need from your sources (like research design templates, theory, methods, case studies, etc.), as well as a list of keywords from your topic that may be helpful in a database search, just remember that to include alternative spellings and common abbreviations and acronyms to ensure full search coverage (Hay et al. 2012:55; Neuman 2009:28). It has also been helpful to me to use some ‘self-help’ writing guides (Figure 1), many of which helped me to write this blog, like: Making the Grade (Hay et al. 2012), The Dissertation Journey (Roberts 2004), and Understanding Research (Neuman 2009).

Using guides can make your life a lot easier. Odds are, if you are struggling with something, others have too.

Figure 1. Using guides can make your life a lot easier. Odds are, if you are struggling with something, others have too. Photograph by: C. Colwell-Pasch.

2)      Use databases.

While it is understood that some sources, such as large texts and primary sources, will not be available in a database (although some of this data could be, in a digitised form), most of the scholarly sources you will need for your study are available in full text online. Some of the more generic databases, like Google Scholar or your library’s search engine (Figure 2), will provide a great starting point for your journey (Roberts 2004:88). More specific databases can include publisher’s websites that can search through peer-reviewed articles for your topic or keyword. A helpful tip is to use a journal or spreadsheet to keep track of what you have already done in case you need to replicate the search: include date, keywords used, Boolean terms and databases searched (Hay et al. 2012:55; Neuman 2009:28).

Figure 2. Flinders University search engine for locating sources within the library or within accessible publishers websites.

Figure 2. Flinders University search engine for locating sources within the library or within accessible publishers websites.

3)      Check source type credibility.

The task is to find high-quality, relevant, reputable sources (Hay et al. 2012:58). It is  credibility of the source that determines whether or not it is scholarly or useable. Peer-review is a type of quality assurance for sources (Neuman 2009:30). While it is tempting, Wikipedia is NOT a scholarly source. It can be used to point you in a research direction but its lack of regulation and open source format hurts its credibility (Roberts 2004:88). The most credible sources are official government websites, peer-reviewed journals, reputable news sources, edited texts and institutional sites (universities, regulatory agencies, and governing bodies). Individual or business websites, web forums, blogs, materials published with ulterior motives are not recommended for use.

4)      Check specific source relevance.

This means evaluating the new source you just found following the above criteria and looking at it through the lens of your research topic. Some of the important points to think about when considering a source are: relevance, author affiliations (sometimes hard to distinguish), credibility of source, the date of publication (it is important to keep up with the times), and the sources cited (did THEY use credible sources?). This is almost like conducting a ‘background check’ to make sure that by using this source you are not going to get any criticism. By making sure you tick these boxes, there will never be an issue with the source chosen.

5)      When is enough, enough?

You followed the steps above, making sure you have a plethora of scholarly sources to add to your arguments in your study, but when do you stop looking? This is arguably the hardest part of the entire exercise (Roberts 2004:74). Gardiner and Kearns (2010:12) call this ‘readitis’. Always chasing the next source or the next idea. This can be dangerous to your study, because, while having a lot of information is good, you have timelines to meet and formatting to keep in mind. Set yourself up a simple reading schedule where you find and read two articles a day for week. The larger the project, the longer your schedule, but be realistic and set yourself a cut-off date and stick to it!

6)      Organisation is key!

The larger the project you are working on, the more need you will have to keep your sources organised. Programs like Endnote or Readcube are excellent for organising your sources and making them your own personal database of sorts. Do not, however, underestimate the power of a proforma and a binder. I use this method as a way to keep my thoughts organised and I even rate the reference in terms of its relevance to the different sections of my study (Roberts 2004:80). By writing down important theories or arguments while reading, you can make the process of integrating that information into your assignment that much easier (don’t forget the page numbers!) (Neuman 2009:37). Burke and Smith (2004:337) suggest that the minimum you record from a source is:

  •          source title
  •          author
  •          title of journal or book from which source was found
  •          publisher
  •          date of publication
  •          place of publication
  •          page range of source in journal or edited chapter


Burke, H., and C. Smith 2004 The Archaeologists Field Handbook. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Gardiner, M. and H. Kearns 2010  Turbocharge Your Writing: How to Become a Prolific Academic Writer. Adelaide: Flinders Univerity.

Hay, I., D. Bochner, G. Blacket, and C. Dungey 2012 Making the Grade: A Guide to Successful Communication and Study. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Neuman, W.L. 2009 Understanding Research. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Roberts, C. M. 2004 The Dissertation Journey: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Writing, and Defending Your Dissertation. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

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