Scholarly Research and Critical Reading
In the so-called "information age," the quantity of knowledge available is overwhelming
and easily accessible. Determining the quality of knowledge and information, however, remains
the key challenge. The relevance and reliability of the numerous books, magazines, pamphlets,
newspapers, journals, brochures, websites, and media reports that are available must be critically
evaluated before they can be used as sources of information. To read critically is to make
judgements about the presentation, credibility, and usefulness of a source. The critical reader is
not looking only or primarily for information but more for ways of thinking about the topic. In
other words, research, in an academic or scholarly context, means not only to "search" for
information but also to "re" search – to search again – that is, to evaluate sources that can provide
evidence to support a thesis for an academic essay.
Types of Research
Primary versus Secondary Sources
Research can be either primary or secondary, depending on the degree of "distance" in
relationship to the topic. A primary source is an original document or account that is not about
another document or account. Primary sources reflect what the contributor chose to say at the
time, but the information in these sources may or may not be accurate and well-reasoned. For
example, any novel, poem, play, diary, letter, or other creative work is a primary source. The
data from a research study also constitutes a primary source because it comes straight from the
participants' replies. Interviews, not of experts but of people actually experiencing something "on
the scene," are also primary sources. Historical documents, autobiographies (written by the
sources themselves), information gathered from interviews or questionnaires are all examples of 2
primary sources. Secondary sources interpret primary sources or provide information indirectly,
through authors who have made judgments about the quality of the primary and secondary
information that they have used. Most journal articles, books, or commentaries about interviews
or questionnaires, that are based on or a response to original sources, are secondary sources. The
expectation of most undergraduate essay assignments is consultation of secondary sources. (See
Exercise on Primary and Secondary Sources [SUNY Empire State College Writer's Complex]).
Scholarly versus Popular Sources
In academic research, considerable emphasis is placed upon scholarship and using
scholarly sources. The terms "peer reviewed" or "refereed" are used to describe scholarly
sources. When evaluating research essays, instructors look for evidence of scholarship. They are
looking for an insightful and a thoughtful analysis of the issues with conclusions supported by
evidence derived from scholarly sources as documented in the references and bibliography of the
essay. The following are some of the characteristics of scholarly publications:
• always document their sources, including parenthetical references and/or bibliographies;
• written by a someone with expertise or who has done considerable research in the field;
• usually affiliated with or sponsored by a specific professional association or reputable
• usually contain a review of the published literature to date;
• usually attempt to advance knowledge in a particular field;
• assume that the reader has some knowledge of the discipline and contain language that
reflects that assumption.
A non-scholarly or popular source is often based on personal opinion and/or is 3
unsubstantiated. There is usually no supporting documentation such as a review of the existing
literature or a bibliography of works consulted. Instructors may consider an essay non-scholarly
if it is based too heavily on opinion pieces such as might be found in a newspaper or popular
magazine. Although academic research exhibits a clear preference for scholarly sources, non-
scholarly material can serve a purpose since it often reflects contemporary and popular thought.
When writing a research paper, the challenge is to find an acceptable balance between the two
types of sources and to use each appropriately. In some cases, little scholarly material may exist
on a given topic. The danger of relying on sources such as newspapers or popular magazines is
that they reflect a commonly accepted position but are difficult to verify or refute. The following
are some of the characteristics of general interest and popular publications:
• sometimes include references to their sources, but most often do not;
• no designated author, can be written by a scholar, free lance writer, or editor;
• usually published by a commercial publisher;
• usually do not contain a review of the published literature to date, and information can often
be second or third hand;
• usually someone's opinion on a contemporary issue;
• attempt to inform/entertain a wide audience on topics of general interest.
Stages of Reading
Academic research invariably involves a substantial amount of reading. But in reading,
quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Furthermore, reading is time consuming, and in
academic research and writing, time is of the essence. Therefore, the critical reader must be
selective and methodical in the pursuit of most relevant sources and the most relevant 4
information within them. Common strategies for more focused reading are (1) scanning and re-
reading and (2) reading from general to specific.
Even though it may appear to be time consuming, re-reading is a crucial part of the
critical reading process that will actually reduce the waste of time on less useful research.
Critical readers reread at least three times to derive as much meaning as they can from a text and
to enhance their capacity to determine the specific value of the reading to the development of
their analysis. The first reading of a text involves merely skimming it quickly for its main ideas.
Previewing the text by paying attention to the introduction, the opening sentences of paragraphs,
and section headings (if there are any) helps the reader to become more familiar with it and to
decide on how much time and effort to commit to further reading. Assuming that the text has not
been found to be irrelevant or useless, the second reading should be a more intensive read, with
pencil in hand to highlight the text or to record notes. Critical analysis is the key concern in the
second stage. With any doubt removed that the text represents useful and relevant research, the
third reading should focus on the highlighted and annotated material to ensure full
comprehension and to determine more precisely the information that is most likely to find its
way into the final analysis. Critical evaluation is the key concern of the third stage
Another way of focusing and organizing research is to read from the general to the
specific. Find background information first; then use more specialized and complex sources
when the focus of the research has been better defined. Therefore, it is practical and helpful to
read in three stages.
Introductory: To get an initial sense of the "big picture," read general works such as
encyclopedias, dictionaries, and Internet sources. These sources are not likely to be the most
authoritative, but they can lay the foundation for knowledge and stimulate thinking. Introductory 5
reading should involve little in the way of notetaking, since the most of the information is still of
undetermined value, is probably too general, and will no doubt appear in more specific sources.
This preliminary learning stage can help to define the topic more narrowly but will not likely
produce a thesis. This stage should be completed quickly to allow sufficient time to work in the
most important stage of reading.
Intensive: Most of the time devoted to reading and evaluating sources and to notetaking will be
spent in the intensive reading stage. Even in this stage of reading, the key is to maintain reading
from the general to the specific. The refinement of the topic and the formulation of a viable
thesis will be the product of intensive reading. The clearer the focus becomes, the more relevant
and specific the reading should become.
Supplementary: As the writing evolves, it may be necessary to revisit sources to clarify points or
bolster the amount of information to support a point. Reading in this stage is very precise and
specialized because, presumably, the essay is under control, and the writer has developed a more
exact sense of focus and direction to complete the analysis. Like the introductory stage,
supplementary reading should not involve a significant investment of time or notetaking.
Critically Evaluating Sources
A critical reader needs to know the purpose, direction, and relevance of the source before
committing to intensive reading and formal notetaking. What is the point of spending time
reading and taking notes on sources that are not the most useful? The critical reader gives due
attention to the structure, context, authorship, and methodology or presentation of the work
A reader can initially derive much information about a source by surveying it based on its 6
fundamental structure and context. This process need not be time consuming, but it can produce
some of the most valuable information that will allow the reader to judge the reliability and
relevance of the source.
Start by browsing through the table of contents and the index, which will provide an
overview of the source. Determining which of the entries has the most page numbers listed next
to it will give an indication of the subjects that contribute to the real scope of the book. Is the
chosen topic covered in enough depth to be helpful? If the chosen topic does not appear to be
discussed, try searching for some synonyms in the index.
Next, read the Preface and/or Introduction to establish context for the discussion and to
determine the author's intent, and possibly thesis statement. Then read the Conclusion before
getting bogged down in minute detail. Did the author answer the research question or support the
thesis? It is helpful to see where the source was intending to go and where it ended up before
going back to read the body for details.
Finally, check for a list of references or other citations that appear to lead to related
sources. Are the sources of information clearly indicated? Does the author use a good mix of
primary and secondary sources for information? Is the source popular or scholarly? Based on the
answers to the above questions, the critical reader can commit to a further analysis and
evaluation of the source.
• When was the source published? (In the case of websites, when was it "last revised"?). This
date is often located on the face of the title page below the name of the publisher. If it is not
there, look for the copyright date on the reverse of the title page. On websites, the date of the 7
last revision is usually at the bottom of the home page, sometimes every page.
• Is the publication date current enough to be useful, or might the source be out-dated? Topic
areas of continuing and rapid development, such as the sciences, demand more current
information. Some information becomes dated when new research is available. On the other
hand, topics in the humanities often require material that was written many years ago.
Indeed, some older sources of information can be quite sound 50 or 100 years later. At the
other extreme, some Internet news sources now note the hour and minute that articles are
posted on their site.
• Is the source a revision of an earlier version? If so, it is not only likely to be more current but
also something that is valuable enough to revise. Further editions indicate that a source has
been revised and updated to reflect changes in knowledge, to include omissions, and to
harmonize with its intended reader's needs. Also, many printings or editions may indicate
that the work has become a standard source in the area and is reliable. Internet sources that
clearly indicate revision dates are considered more reliable to the extent that they are being
• Who published/produced the source? Is the publisher/producer reputable? For example, a
university press or a government agency is likely to be a reputable source that reviews its
publications. That helps to ensure some quality control over the source, although the fact that
the publisher is reputable does not necessarily guarantee quality.
• Is the publisher/ producer recognized in the field as being an authority? Is the publisher /