Finding and Examining the Sources in Your Sources

Textual research is a complex process, and it does not end with identifying some appropriate sources. A text, once identified as useful, can be the starting point of a vein of useful resources that stretch across databases, journals, and fields.  This article will help you figure out what to do once you get through the database and start finding articles that may be useful. Citeable sources abound both in print and online, and the challenge of any researcher, new or experienced, is to determine what information in which databases are useful. There is some great guidance on using databases, as well as finding useful databases, elsewhere in Writing Commons. When you find a useful article, you have hit the start of a trail. The trick is to keep on the trail without falling off into other, less useful sources, and one way to do that is to follow the citations made in the useful articles you find, using their arguments as a way of determining the possible utility of other texts. The possible utility of these texts can be determined according to four keys: context, time, citation prevalence, and a review of the text.

The first time a reader encounters a citation, it will–for obvious reasons–not be divorced from context. The reader will be in the midst of a text that calls forth, for one reason or another, a different text. The context of this citation—that is, the way the citation is organized into the surrounding text by the author—will sometimes be extensive (i.e., a quote, a block quote, an extended summary or paraphrase), and sometimes consist of nothing more than an indirect reference (see Figures 1 and 2). Whatever the amount of detail, however, there is always some context from which the reader can draw in order to better glean some indication of what the text is about.

Figure 1: An Extensive Reference

New materialism is a transdisicplinary effort to reshape materialist critiques in order to acknowledge and reckon with a much-expanded notion of agency, one that includes humans, nonhumans, and the environmental surround. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, editors of New Materialism, argue that “any plausible account of coexistence and its conditions in the twenty-first century” requires focus on a multidimensional understanding of materiality, one that does not launch a de facto dismissal of nature and biology on grounds that they are “naively representational or naturalistic” (3). They find textual analysis, structural Marxism, and “radical constructivism,” for example, incapable of describing complex material realities and resulting radical agencies (2-3). Intersecting forms of matter frame our existence in large and small ways; political and cultural theory cannot afford to ignore or belittle this insight, as the following makes clear:

Our existence depends from one moment to the next on myriad micro-organisms and diverse higher species, on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions and pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday lives. (1)

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate some of the various contexts that a reader may have to work with. In Figure 1, the author (Micciche) provides a great deal of context about her source. They provide not only a framework within which to think about Coole and Frost (i.e., through “New Materialism”), but several extensive quotations that helps the reader understand exactly how Micciche is taking up these authors. This extra text allows the reader, as someone considering Coole and Frost as a potential source, to glean a great deal about whether or not it would be useful. Figure 2, on the other hand, shows an indirect reference. In that passage, the references to Heath and Bartholomae are embedded within a wider review of literacy and academic writing. In this case, the reader cannot learn the specifics as in Figure 1, but the texts can be put into a context of the field of literacy and academic writing studies, which may clue the reader into whether or not the texts may be useful.

Figure 2: An Indirect Reference

The social turn configured writing as a mode of social action – a tool for enacting agency and, quite often, change on a large and small scale. Writing also became a tool for expressing cultural identities, developing awareness of experience as both personal and collective, and joining a conversation that does not begin or end with a single individual. In contrast to cognitive models, writing was theorized as a process embedded in sociopolitical, familial contexts, complete with power inequities and uneven access to literacy tools (see Heath). And academic writing was often viewed as inseparable from the politics of discourse and the complexities of community membership, belonging, and outsider status (see Bartholomae).

The second important element to consider is the issue of time. In what year was the publication that you found written? Was it recently–within the past five years or so–or was it a decade or more ago? An older citation is not necessarily a useless citation, of course, but the data used and the conclusions arrived at may be dated, or perhaps superseded by the more recent work of others. It is also important to decide whether the work is a seminal text–that is, a well-established text that acts as a cornerstone of a field or a sub-field. If that is the case, then the fact that the article is dated is less important than the fact that the article is instrumental in a field or sub-field’s understanding of the world. In addition to the context around the citation (some authors will quite pointedly claim that a given text is seminal), you can also look to the citation count (i.e., how often the source is referenced in other texts) to determine how often the work gets used (and in what context).

Determining how often a citation is used is referred to as citation prevalence. Who else has cited this text? Toward what ends? Under what circumstances? The fact that a work has not been cited does not necessarily mean that it is not helpful–most articles are rarely, if ever, directly cited. However, figuring out whether and how others have cited a work is an effective way of determining the power of a given article. Tracking the citation references of a given article is relatively easy these days, thanks to Google Scholar. Typing an article’s title into the Google Scholar search bar will lead to not simply the article, but how often that article has been cited, as well as who has been citing this article. This is a quick, easy way to determine the relative importance of a given text (although to rely on this alone may be a bit of a bad idea – after all, it’s hardly easy for Google to track all of these citations, and there may be important works that are missed).

The final test in determining whether to use a source is, of course, to read it. However, it often seems (in the eyes of a novice researcher, at any rate) that the act of reading is itself an admission of surrender on some level: that reading is no longer deciding on the importance of an article, but is in fact the result of deciding that an article is important. This, of course, is not the case, as there are many steps between deciding an article may be worth reading and reading that article from start to finish. Understanding how to use these steps to your advantage is part of the broad collection of skills that fall into the category of information literacy. There are many different ways of assessing the worth of a text, such as Joe Moxley’s questions to bring to a text. Approaches like this one are efficient ways to consider articles without being overwhelmed with the mass of data in front of you—in other words, they are ways to sharpen and expand your information literacy skills.

There is a large and ever-widening world of research out there, and, to a novice researcher, this can be a little intimidating, even overwhelming. However, by finding ways to optimize both your article searches and your time, you can make the most of your research efforts. Paying attention to context, time, citation prevalence, and a review of the texts you encounter is a useful step forward in increasing your own productivity.