Putting It Together: Finding and Evaluating Sources

Many of us have used research writing projects as a way to “prove” what we already believe.  An essay assignment may ask us to take a position on an issue, and then support that position with evidence found in research. 

Because you begin a project like this with a thesis in mind (you already know what you believe!), it is very tempting to use only those sources that agree with you and to discard the others. Perhaps you find enough such sources and construct a paper. Ask yourself the following question, though: what have you discovered during your research? Have you learned new theories, opinions, or aspects of your subject? Did anything surprise you, intrigue you, or make you look further? If you answered no to these questions, you did not fulfill the purpose of true research, which is to explore, to discover, and to investigate.

Decorative image.The purpose of research is not to look for proof of the author’s pre-existing theories, but to learn about the subject of the investigation as much as possible and then form theories, opinions, and arguments on the basis of this new knowledge and understanding. And what if there is no data that prove your theory? What if, after hours and days of searching, you realize that there is nothing out there that would allow you to make the claim that you wanted to make? Most likely, this will lead to frustration, a change of the paper’s topic, and having to start all over again. 

So, should you begin every research project as a disinterested individual without opinions, ideas, and beliefs? Of course not! There is nothing wrong about having opinions, ideas, and beliefs about your subject before beginning the research process. Good researchers and writers are passionate about their work and want to share their passion with the world. Moreover, pre-existing knowledge can be a powerful research-starter. But what separates a true researcher from someone who simply looks for “proof” for a pre-fabricated thesis is that a true researcher is willing to question those pre-existing beliefs and to take his or her understanding of the research topic well beyond what he or she knew at the outset. A good researcher and writer is willing to create new meaning, a new understanding of his or her subject through research and writing.