Identifying and Extracting Information From Sources
Lesson Overview and Learning Goals
In this session, students will learn about different types of sources in research and how to identify them. Students will explore the applications of each type of source in the context of a term paper, essay, or lab report. Students will also learn tips for assessing source quality and efficiently extracting information from sources.
By the end of this session, students will be able to:
Identify primary, secondary, and tertiary sources and know when each is most appropriate
Compare the validity of competing sources of information
Pinpoint and extract accurate and important information from a given source, such as the main theme, research methodology, and conclusion
Imagine you wanted to learn about marine biology. Where would you start? How would you find relevant information in an efficient manner? How would you extract information once you have found appropriate sources? What if you wanted to learn specifically about great white sharks rather than other types of sharks? How would you filter your searches so that you only find information relevant to your topic?
In this lesson, you will learn about different sources of information and how to navigate them. Whether you're working on a school project or conducting research out of personal interest, learning about different sources and how they are organized will help streamline the process of discovery.
Types of Sources
Primary sources are first-hand accounts or descriptions about an event, person or piece of art. This can include photographs, cartoons, scientific data, eyewitness accounts, speeches or any other type of first hand evidence.
The type of primary source you may be interested in can depend on what you are studying. For example, if you are studying a historical event, you may find diary entries, photographs and newspaper cartoons published or written during the event to be of particular interest. Alternatively, if you were researching the effects of greenhouse gasses, raw data presenting evidence for the rising temperatures in the Arctic and scientific papers on the subject would be of more interest.
Secondary sources are a discussion, analysis or interpretation of first hand information. They can be someone else’s views or opinions on a topic or event. Examples of secondary sources include book or paper reviews, scholarly articles summarizing or reviewing others work, and popular media such as newspapers or magazines.
It is important to keep in mind that secondary sources contain an inherent bias due their nature. Secondary sources are based on opinions, which will vary depending on the author’s background, experiences and personal beliefs. You should always recognize this and think about why the source fits well with your topic, but how it could also be unknowingly influenced by outside sources like personal bias.
Side Note: Variety of Sources
An important thing to keep in mind is the perspective from which the source presents. For historical accounts such as newspapers or diary entries, look for the author and their backgrounds. Is there anything that may sway how they write about a certain topic? For example, a diary entry of a Canadian soldier fighting in WWII would have a very different perspective about the war than an Italian soldier writing about the same event. This influence is called bias. In terms of scientific papers, an example of bias could be the source of the funding received by the researchers. For example, if Pharmaceutical Company X funds a laboratory to research the effects of eating too much sugar, but Company X profits off of sugar sales, the results of the laboratory may be favoured towards eating more sugar (which would be very poor science practice!). Therefore, it is important to include a variety of sources to support your research in order to provide a diverse range of perspectives or enough evidence to back up your findings.
Tertiary sources provide us the means to find secondary and primary sources. They are used to organize and locate primary and secondary sources. Examples of tertiary sources include databases and abstracts. Some databases are not free to use and are blocked by a paywall. However, there are many open-access databases and paywall-free articles online such as CORE and PubMed.
Exercise: Finding the Sources You Need
Primary sources and credible secondary sources can sometimes be tricky to find, especially if you are looking for information about a new discovery or an ancient civilization (photographs would not be an option!). Searching through a database can also be difficult if you’re not exactly sure where to start. To make it a bit easier and to give us a good starting point, we can implement a ‘data mining’ strategy to help us.
Imagine that you are working on a project on greenhouse gas emissions and their effect on the environment. Your first step can simply be a quick search online for “greenhouse gases”. Of course this will produce millions of results, but for now, you can go to the Wikipedia page titled “Greenhouse gas”. You may have been told to avoid using Wikipedia for a research project, but when initially searching for sources it can actually be quite useful. If you scroll down to the bottom of the “Greenhouse gas” article you will eventually find the “References” and “Bibliography” sections. Here there are a plethora of sources that contributors to the article have cited within the Wikipedia page.
Many of these sources are scientific papers and are open access! Some of these sources may not be what you are looking for or aren’t credible enough to use for a research paper. It is up to you to determine which sources are appropriate for your project and originate from credible authors.
Navigating databases can seem intimidating. They seem to function a lot differently from search engines such as Google. This section will provide some tips to help you efficiently navigate online databases to find relevant and credible information in the topic of interest.
Two common databases are PubMed and EBSCO. PubMed is an open-access database engine search with millions of credible resources, references, and abstracts on life science and biomedical topics. EBSCO is commonly provided by institutes for credible peer-reviewed research in numerous subject areas. The Directory of Open Access Journal supported by EBSCO can also be used.
The key to navigating databases is to apply curtains search techniques that respond well to the databases used.
There are two primary techniques to perform a database search. Two of which are:
Keywords: general words to be used in any scenario
Subject terms/headings: words to describe content originating from indexers and cataloguers
To better compare the two methods:
2. Boolean Operators
Application of database logic consisting of 3 operators. Often included in the database search bar or simply typed in by the user. More than one can be used at once.
AND - looks for occurrence of multiple search terms in 1 source to refine the search
OR - looks for occurrence of 1 search term or another to expand a search
NOT- looks for 1 search term while omitting another to limit a search
Example: (environmental design OR organizational culture) AND (health promotion OR health behavior)
3. Searchable Fields
Common searchable fields include:
Example of concepts #2 and #3 on EBSCOhost:
4. Phrase Searching
While not all databases process search input in the same way, many databases include a phrase searching function for users to narrow their search
Initiate a phrase search simply by enclosing a search term, phrase, title to be emphasized in quotation marks or parentheses
For example: “Hotel management” or (Hotel management)
Being able to extract information right from a resource is an important skill. Once you have collected the appropriate resources, how would you efficiently extract information from them? This section will provide tips to help you find the right information from your sources.
Here is some information you may wish to can collect and note from each source you find:
Who published the source (authorship) and when?
What is the source type (primary, secondary, or tertiary)?
What is the main theme or idea being discussed?
What methods were employed? (where applicable)
What are the major conclusions or findings?
Where did the author get his/her information?
Before you dive into extracting information, make sure you read your source first (paper, book chapter, review article etc.) and understand its comprehension. This will help you get the basic idea of the content and you will be able to build on some background knowledge. Ask yourself what is the big picture and what general conclusions are being made. The goal here is to grasp the main ideas of the source without taking any detailed notes. You can identify the big picture by paying close attention to how the source is organized - look at the titles, headings, subheading and key highlighted terms. You can read the abstract or introduction section of certain sources which will help you identify what is the rationale (motivation) of the source/ the purpose of the research. It is also a good habit to identify and note down any terms and concepts that you do not understand so you can pay closer attention to them at a later time.
After your initial reading of your selected source, it is up to you to determine if the source (paper, book chapter, review article etc.) you just read is credible relevant to your research needs. If your answer is yes and the information aligns with the research question then you should reread the paper and attempt on extracting the following information: What is the author claiming/concluding, How does the author interpret the findings, and if the claims and arguments are supported enough. You can extract this information by taking notes by using tables and bullet points to jot down any important information. Being able to annotate and highlight serve as great tools for extracting information. Annotations are small comments/notes that are made in the margins or beside the text and they will allow you to record your ideas/thought process while reading the text that you can easily refer back to. You should also look at all tables and figures presented in your source and annotate those as well.
Once you have reread your sources carefully, you should be able answer the questions listed above. You should summarize the main findings and conclusions from each source and analyze them critically. Lasly, you can review your references and determine if you need more or if you need to reread some again.