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CHEM 3370: Perspectives on Science and Mathematics | Mason: Types of Sources

A guide to finding and using resources for assignments in CHEM 3370

Types of Sources

When evaluating the type of resource you need for your research, there are a few factors to consider. 

Format: Do you need print or digital? An audio/visual resource?

Scope: How broad or granular should the source be? Do you need information for experts or laypeople?

Viewpoint: Do you need a first-person account? Will a literature review suffice?


Examples of Sources


Perhaps the easiest way to classify sources is by format. 

The Muntz Library offers resources in a variety of media formats. Print resources, typically books, are located on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors. Items on the 2nd floor are reference materials and can only be used in the library. Items on the 3rd floor are circulating books - you can check those out for three weeks at a time. The 4th floor houses our print periodicals , which must stay in the library as well.

We also have audio-visual materials, microfilm, and microfiche. AV materials can be accessed from the circulation desk. CDs and DVDs can be checked out like books; LPs must be used in the library. The microfilm and microfiche are on the 2nd and 4th floors. Feel free to ask the librarian on duty if you need help with those materials.

You can find electronic resources in our databases. These may include ebooks, journal articles, conference papers, data sets, government publications, newspapers, theses and dissertations, and magazines, among others. If you are off campus, you will need to log in using your Patriots credentials to access these sources.


Another way to describe the type of source you need is by the scope. Usually we think of sources as academic, popular, or gray. Some sources are very focused. Consider trade journals - the audience for these sources is very specific, and the type of information usually included is pragmatic. Newspapers are more general and broader in scope, including information on numerous topics of interest to a variety of readers.

In library research, we talk about this factor in terms of relevance - is this the type of source relevant to your inquiry? If you were writing a paper for your English class, and you picked the topic of hydraulic fracturing, you probably need more popular sources, those that put your research into terms the average reader should understand. However, if you were writing a paper on the same topic for your engineering class, you would expect to use more scholarly, probably peer-reviewed, sources, that are intended for an audience of other engineers who understand the topic with more depth.


When selecting sources it is important to consider the viewpoint. What is the author's relationship to the information s/he is presenting? 

Primary sources present information that is experienced by the author. In the humanities, this may be a diary or eyewitness account. In science, this may be a lab report, a data set, a patent, or another source presenting information the author experienced first hand. Most often we are looking at a research article - a scientist describes the theory, methods, sample size, control group - all of the aspects of the research conducted - in a first-hand account.

Secondary sources are those written or produced by someone other than the primary author or researcher. Typically this includes books, review articles, lectures, biographies, monographs, or other sources where there is some interpretation of the information provided. A large portion of the research you do will involve secondary sources.

Tertiary sources are those quite removed from original research or accounts of events. Typically these are compilations of information from secondary and even other tertiary sources. Typically this includes textbooks, encyclopedias, almanacs, bibliographies, and other sources that tend to have a shallow look at a topic.