Me: Whoa, Patricia, you can’t write about this.
Also me: Excuse me?
Me: This is just about how to find the kind of articles you’d cite in a research paper for school or something. It’s not even related to apologetics or helping Christians navigate secular classrooms and cultures!
Also me: Actually, self, you’d be surprised. Knowing how to find great research sources is super relevant for at least three reasons:
- Critical thinking: When Christians encounter information that doesn’t align with a biblical worldview, they need to know how to go back to the original information source and ask questions like, “Where did this information come from? Who said it? How did the researchers collect the data? Is there another way to interpret the data? What assumptions did the researchers use? What have other experts said? Does newer research say anything different?”
- Being informed: This is an age when Christians need to stay more informed than ever, and not just by the news feeds! Knowing how to track down solid information from original sources is an asset for understanding and responding to current issues from an informed Christian perspective.
- Serving others: Once Christians have that information, they can use it to better serve others. And you, self, can serve Christian students by sharing some top tips from your own four years of academic writing. For even now, a spring of panic gushes across North America as freshmen students awaken to the threat of their first term papers. HARKEN TO THEIR CRIES!
Me: Ri-i-i-i-i-i-ght. Calm down. Stop talking to yourself. Start writing!
* * *
To start off, there are two types of information sources:
Primary Sources are the original articles where researchers report their findings. These are usually published in academic journals like Science, American Psychologist, Biblical Archeology Review, and countless others. They may also be published as theses or independent works, though such studies aren’t first screened by a panel of experts (peer-reviewed) the way journal articles are.
Secondary sources are all the writings that talk about information from primary sources. These include news reports and magazine articles about researchers’ discoveries, along with formal papers called literature reviews that combine information from a lot of different researchers.
Hot tip for students: Primary sources are the ones you usually need to reference for term papers. But literature reviews are perfect for finding primary sources and for getting new insights, perspectives or overviews of a topic.
A great place where anyone can find primary sources, literature reviews and other high-profile information sources is Google Scholar. Here are all the things I wish I had known as a first-year student about how to use it:
To start, look up “Google Scholar” and click the official link.
You’ll notice from this screenshot that it’s automatically set to search for “Articles.” (If you wanted to find legal reports from real court cases about an issue, you would check the box beside “Case law.”) Now you can search for some key words. I’ll try “Christian students secular university.”
A slew of sources from journal articles to theses to ebooks and citations will pop up. I used the “Custom range” date filter at the top left to limit my results to information published in the last 10 years. Notice that only the first result, “Navigating religion between university and home,” has a link to the right. This shows that the article is open access, so anyone can view it without subscribing to the journal it was published in. If you’re a student, you can still copy the titles of non-open access articles into your university library database and possibly access them that way.
Now there are three quick tools I want to show you—reasons why I like Google Scholar.
- Under each article in your search results, you’ll notice a set of blue quotation marks to the right of a blue star. Click on that, and the article’s citation will appear in a few official formats including APA, MLA and Chicago. This will save you so much time citing articles as a student! But do double check details like page numbers and capitalization, and watch that the italics stay put when you copy and paste it to your paper.
- Next to the quotes, there’s a “Cited by __” link. Clicking this will show you all the articles and studies which cite information in this one. This is a fantastic way to find related, more recent articles, which may also provide alternative explanations, interpretations or critiques of information in the first article.
- Next to this link is a “Related articles” link, which is another way to find information on the same topic.
Once you’ve clicked the “Citing articles” button, you can narrow your results by checking the “search within citing articles” box and entering a new set of keywords. For example, let’s say I only wanted to know about Christian students in Canada. I’d click the “Cited by 34” link under the first article, click the “search within citing articles” button above the first results that popped up, and enter “Canada” into the search box at the top:
If you have access to other databases besides Google Scholar, that’s great! But not all school databases, for instance, will have tools for finding related articles, searching for keywords within citing articles, or for making article citations. (Web of Science is one good exception, as it has a tool for finding citing articles and has less cluttered results than Google Scholar.) So, I would often use Google Scholar or Web of Science to find and cite articles, use my university library database to access the article, and go back to Google Scholar to make a citation of the article for my paper’s reference page.
As a heads up, remember that articles in academic journals are usually reeeeeeeeally long, and most of the details in them probably aren’t going to be relevant to what you want to know. So never read the whole thing unless you really want to! Start with looking at the abstract, the summary which most formal articles include at their beginning. Then, you can use your control+F keyboard shortcut to find keywords within the article.
Another thing to keep in mind is that academic articles are written for other researchers, not for popular consumption. So go ahead and read it, but don’t worry if it turns out to be jargony. Still, papers about some topics (like radio carbon dating or specific viral mutations) may be a bit technical to read without some background information in the field. So, it’s useful to read about topics like these from solid secondary sources, ideally written from an informed biblical perspective. (Creation.com is one of my main go-to’s in this regard for science-y topics.)
Ultimately though, finding the right information is only the beginning. You still need to think critically about it, to consider what worldview the researcher might be using to interpret the data (certainly, most authors will not be coming from a biblical perspective!), and to ask whether the information lines up with what the Bible already says.
At the end of the day, His word is our ultimate information source.