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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

POLI SCI 111 : Introduction to Comparative Politics

Fall 2020; Jiun Bang


What is the difference between primary and secondary sources?

A primary source is a first-hand account of a subject. If I were to interview you and publish the transcript, that would be a primary source. Other examples of primary sources are data, e-mails, social media posts, legislation and court decisions, and political debates. In the sciences, analysis of data from an experiment is considered to be a primary source.

A secondary source is an analysis of primary sources (or other secondary sources). A meta-review article in a science journal is a type of secondary source because it's an analysis and commentary of other scientific experiments (primary source). Similarly, a law review article is an analysis of primary sources such as legislation and judicial decisions. Scholarly articles also point to other secondary sources to show what has already been researched about the subject. Books are also generally secondary sources (other than, for example, autobiographies).

Click HERE to play "Wheel of Sources". (new window)

Why not just use Google?

Google is a great resource for quick answers, but it's not the best place to go for scholarly research. Google results are sorted by an algorithm that puts more emphasis on the popularity of a site. Just because a site is popular, doesn't mean it's reliable!

What about Google Scholar?

Google Scholar limits its results to articles published in academic journals, so they tend to be more reliable. However, the full-text of the articles are usually not available online. UMass Libraries pays for subscriptions to databases to give students and faculty access to the full text of scholarly articles. In addition, these databases allow you to perform more advanced and specific searches than you could with Google Scholar.

Is Wikipedia a reliable source?

Wikipedia is often the first result when doing a Google (or Bing, etc.) search. Wikipedia is useful to get a general idea about something, but in itself it is not reliable (because anyone can change it). Instead, a good Wikipedia article will have many reliable sources cited. Look at those sources instead.

How do I know if a source is reliable and/or truthful?

Articles from a peer-reviewed journal are considered reliable. Articles from magazines and newspapers are also reliable. Sometimes, if you're not familiar with a source, you might have to analyze it or consult a fact-checking site.

UMass Libraries has a Fake News library guide with information on how to judge whether you should rely on a source for your research. Sites such as Media Bias / Fact Check examine the truthfulness and bias of various news providers. You can also use tools such as the CRAAP Test to judge for yourself whether to put faith in a source (CRAAP stands for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose).

What is a peer-reviewed journal?

A peer-reviewed article or journal (also known as "refereed") is one that is checked for accuracy and sound methodology by at least one other expert in the field (i.e. a peer). Newspaper and magazine articles are checked by editors and fact-checkers, but not by others who specialize in the subject, so they are not peer-reviewed. The journal home page should indicate whether it is peer-reviewed. In many of UMass Libraries' databases, you can limit your search to peer-reviewed journals.

Popular Literature vs. Scholarly Peer-Reviewed Literature: What's the Difference? (Rutgers University)

Click HERE to watch a short video about peer review. (new window)

Library resources