In one of the graduate-level research courses I teach, we guide students through an action research project. Each student choses the topic, shares a problem of practice and crafts a research question before starting the research topic. The projects include a substantive review of the literature on whatever topic they’ve chosen. Here are 5 websites I advise them to avoid (and why):
If you need to define a term for a research paper, look to published research, not a dictionary. Why? Because you’re a university student who is a novice researcher and part of your job entails going beyond simple dictionary definitions to understand the deeper, more complex meaning of terms, particularly in the context of research.
If you want to quote someone, for heaven’s sake, don’t use this — or any other — quotation website. Referencing websites like this sends a clear message to your prof: “I am too lazy to find the original source myself.” You’re a university student! You have the ability and resources to find the original source material yourself and cite that instead.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s say you can’t easily access the original source because it is an ancient text in a foreign language (like the work of Plato or Socrates). You can still find modern translations of the work of the ancient philosophers and quite honestly, if you do then you are well on your way to developing your own skills as a scholar.
Who doesn’t love Oprah? She’s inspiring and magnetic. But she’s not a scholar. She doesn’t publish academic papers and she doesn’t conduct research. Feel free to talk about Oprah’s views and visions for a better world at the dinner table or with your friends when you are out for a latte, but when you put on your researcher hat, seek out the “big names” in the field of research you’re interested in. Chances are, they won’t have a TV show, but they’ll probably have one hell of a publication list.
Let’s get one thing straight. Just because someone carries the title of “Dr.”, that doesn’t mean you should cite them in your research papers. Even if your research topic is about relationships, coping, resilience or some other topic related to psychology, unless you can find a research article published by Dr. Phil McGraw in a peer-reviewed academic journal, then don’t cite him. Learn to distinguish between TV personalities who are experts in a given field and scholarly authorities whose work is peer-reviewed and academic. For research, always opt for academic sources over mass media.
Are you getting the picture here? Like Oprah and Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz is a well-known TV personality who is a credentialed physician in the United States. But that doesn’t mean you should take his views on medical issues as evidence for your research papers.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of these websites. They’re meant for popular consumption. But as a researcher, you want to dig deeper and be relentless in your quest for using quality scholarly sources in your research papers. Don’t settle for sources that are not deeply credible and obviously academic.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.