How to Find Sources for a Research Paper

Selecting sources is the most critical stage in writing any research paper because they determine what information you include in your text. Thus, if the sources are wrong, the entire final paper will be of poor quality. This is why it is so crucial to know how to find primary sources for a research paper. This article just might help you. This is a complete guide to how to find sources for a research paper. All the essential points are explained here step by step, and examples are given.

What are Sources for a Research Paper?

Sources for a research paper are publications from which you write your text. What are good sources for a research paper? First and foremost, they are authoritative and reliable textual content. In other words, it does not necessarily have to be a monograph, but it does have to be a source you and other people can trust. Because of this, the question of how to find credible sources for a research paper is often answered: start with academic publications. For example, look at texts in scientific journals. It can also be:

  • methodological manuals;
  • textbooks;
  • and sometimes just articles.

What are the Different Types of Sources for a Research Paper?

Let’s take a closer look at all the possible sources. Here is a general list of types:

  • Publications in scientific journals. For example, Oxford Academic magazine.
  • Newspapers and popular magazines. For example, The New York Times.
  • Professional journals. For example, Quantum Magazine.
  • Books. Meaning academic books, not fiction books.
  • Excerpts and transcripts from scientific conferences.
  • Government documents. For example, laws. This type of source is widely used for research papers on jurisprudence.

The list is quite broad, raising the question of finding the best sources for a research paper. The answer to this depends on what field of work you are writing. For example, a mathematician is unlikely to use newspapers, but a sociologist will find them very useful.

How Many Sources for a Research Paper Needed?

The number of sources you should use depends on the length of the research paper and its topic. It is assumed that at least 1-2 references should be mentioned on one page (and they may be repeated on other pages).
The minimum number for the entire paper is five sources. The ideal number of sources is 15. However, as mentioned above, the topic and the area of the text are influenced. For example, the average number of sources for medical research is 29, while genetic research articles can have 50 references.
Nevertheless, such figures are rarely found in student papers. It is better to use fewer sources but of higher quality—for example, 7.

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How Old Can Sources Be for a Research Paper

It is not enough for a student to know what are acceptable sources for a research paper because even the most authoritative article from a scientific journal will be useless if it was published too long ago, simply because it is no longer relevant. It raises the question of how old the sources can be.

  • For fields such as history, art, and literature, it is acceptable to use sources published in the last ten years.
  • For technically advanced fields, especially AI and VR, it is better to track publications from the last year. It is acceptable that three years have passed since publication.
  • For other fields, the average number is five years.

Also, pay attention to the topic. If you are researching algorithms from the 1980s, include in your sources publications from that period.

Otherwise, try to keep the articles as new as possible. For example, go to Google Scholar and filter everything for 2020-2021. 

How to Сite Sources for a Research Paper

Correct citation helps avoid plagiarism. After exact (in quotation marks) or paraphrased use of information in the text, indicate in parentheses the name of the author of the quotation and the year of publication, separated by a comma. The entire list of sources is written on a separate page and covers complete information:

  • author’s name;
  • title of the publication (article, book or journal);
  • date of publication;
  • if the information is taken from a book where other works of other authors are published – page number;
  • for a journal article, also include the issue number;
  • for the source of the book, also write who the publisher is.

List this information in a different order, depending on which formatting style is used:

  • APA (usually for the social sciences). First the author’s name, then the year of publication in parentheses, then the title of publication and edition in parentheses, then the publisher. For example: Black, K. (2021). Social Causes of Bullying in Adolescence. (2nd ed.). Bloomsbury.
  • MLA (usually for humanities). Author’s name first, then title of publication, then edition, publisher, and year. For example: Granger, Willow. The role of philosophy in language cultures. 3rd ed., Wiley, 2021.

There are other subtleties of formatting as well as other styles. For example, the format for medical and engineering majors is determined by each college. Therefore, it is best to consult a complete guide to formatting a particular style for details.

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