Help with Understanding Research: Online vs. Print Sources

I’ve been dealing recently with a lot of questions about finding secondary source material for assignments. I often find that students have a hard time understanding which sources are appropriate scholarly sources, as well as which sources are considered “online” sources and which are not.

We ask students all the time to find books and articles to supplement their essays or for research papers in upper level courses and find ourselves mystified by what they find. I think the root of the misunderstanding comes from how the students access many print sources today. Online journal databases like JSTOR and library copies of e-books, while they make finding bibliography items very easy, can divorce the content from its original form: a print source.

Let’s start by thinking about JSTOR. JSTOR is an online database of scanned (for the older articles) or electronic (for newer articles) copies of articles that were originally published in a print version of the journal, a fact that is easy to forget since most of us nowadays don’t ever read the physical print copies of the journals. That wasn’t always the case, though. Thirty years ago, if you wanted to know what was in the latest copy of The Journal of Roman Studies, you would have gone into the Current Periodicals section of your university library. If you found something you liked, you would very likely have read it right away, in the Reading Room (since you are usually not allowed to remove current periodicals from the Reading Room). I like to imagine the Current Periodicals Reading Room as the water cooler of the pre-internet university.

Professors would come to find out what the latest research was, sit and read a while, and likely run into a colleague and maybe organize an impromptu lunch or coffee. As you can see from the photo of the Reading Room at Columbia’s Butler Library, they can be cozy places to read and stay awhile.

Now that we get nearly all of our content (especially true for undergraduates) from JSTOR or other online sources, it’s easy to forget that these journals are actual, physical, print sources. Once the new issue comes out, the old issue is placed in the library stacks, shelved next to the other issues of the same journal. You’ll often see the issues for the past 3 or 4 years corralled together on the shelf.

Then the library binds them together, usually either by year or by two years (depending on how thick each issue of the journal tends to be).

The same is true with Cambridge eBooks online or any other collection of e-books that your university library subscribes to. Having access to an electronic copy of the book is great. It means that the university can buy fewer physical copies (so that it can buy a greater number of individual book titles) and they are sometimes almost painfully convenient, especially if you just need to check on something or read a very short part. Instead of having to go to the library, find the book on the shelves, and check your reference (or haul the book home to read it), you can log in to your university library and read it right away (even when the library is closed). But these e-books are again not online sources. Instead, they too are electronic versions of actual, physical print books.

So what is the point of all of this? Why should we care at all if the sources that you use for your research papers started out their lives in print? Well quite frankly because the truth is that anyone can post anything on the internet for free in a variety of different online mediums (blogs, videos, Wikipedia, etc.). There is no control over the content that goes up online, for the most part, so it is often difficult to tell if the information given on a site is accurate. Print journals and academic books, on the other hand, are peer-reviewed prior to publication. They are often also held to a higher standard by the universities and professional organizations that run them and most of the time are funded by public grants. These factors mean that the journal has a stake in ensuring that, to the best of their abilities, the articles that they publish are sound.

What does peer review even mean and why should we care so much? Peer review is when another (or several other) academics, who are experts in the same field as the work being evaluated, read it and weigh in on the quality of the research presented. Does the author back up their claims with evidence? Have they read the relevant bibliography for the topic? Is the book or article making an original claim? Even if the scholar who reads the work disagrees with the argument, they can still decide that it should be published. Once the book or article passes a peer review, it is then professionally edited.

Now that I’ve told you why you are supposed to use print sources for your essays, I’m going to give you a caveat. While print sources are more likely to be trustworthy than online sources, not all sources that are online-only are inaccurate, just like not all print sources are perfectly trustworthy or appropriate for use in an undergraduate essay. For example, there are some open access online journals (like this one in Ancient History) that only publish online. The articles are still peer-reviewed, but they can give readers access to them for free by cutting down on the cost of producing print journals (which are very expensive to have produced). Conversely, there are many books published on popular topics of history that are not peer reviewed. Usually, these books are aimed at a more general audience (unlike books published by university or academic presses that are aimed at a specialist audience), and would not generally be appropriate for use in a research paper. They might be great histories or biographies, and they were likely fact checked and edited professionally, but they are not the same as peer-reviewed academic literature. As with all things, you should consider the quality of your source.

As a general rule, your profs and TAs don’t want you to use online sources because they want the sources that you rely on for your arguments to help you and not hurt you. What we really want is for your sources to be of an appropriate caliber for undergraduate research (not popular histories written for general audiences) – so we want them to be peer reviewed. Peer-reviewed sources, while you might not agree with their arguments, are less likely to contain information that is not factual or not supported by the sources (notice that I’m not guaranteeing anything).

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the difference between online and print sources and why it’s so important that you use print sources for your essays. Bonus tip: when you cite an e-book or an electronic copy of a journal article, you can usually cite it just like you would the physical book or journal, because that is what you are actually citing. You don’t need to worry all the time about access dates and URLs that way too!


~m

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