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Sources and how to use them

Are you looking for a definition, do you want to get yourself acquainted with a subject or get to know about the most important theories within the field? Do you want to know what questions researchers within the field deal with?

There are different types of sources containing different kinds of information. Therefore, it is very important to know a little about these sources, and how to make good use of them.


In encyclopedias you will find definitions and explanations to different terms, which means they are a good first introduction to a subject. There are both general and subject-specific encyclopedias.

The entries may also contain selected references for further reading.


In this context, handbooks are defined as theoretical overviews, rather than practical instructions. Handbooks offer collections of overview chapters of different aspects of a more or less broad subject. They will give you an introduction to a specific field, the theories that are used within the research, and its most important authors, as well as good reference lists of the most important contributions to the field. 

Handbooks explain the various terms used within the specific field. Therefore, handbooks provide good shortcuts to important original sources.


By books, in this case specialist books of overview character, like text books (course books) for university studies, or books where the author pursues a theory of his or her own. Often, books like this often include an introductory chapter which provides a good overview of the subject. You will also find useful references to earlier research and original articles. However, you should always keep in mind that it usually takes quite a long period of time to write and publish a book, so certain facts may have become out of date.

Some academic publishers specialize in edited volumes with chapters by prominent researchers within the field. The contributions are selected, compiled and reviewed by an editor or sent out to be reviewed by other scholars within the same field.

Dissertations and student theses

Dissertations are written by postgraduate students to get a licentiate or doctoral degree. By this, they have proven that they know the earlier research within the discipline, master the area of research methodology, and also contribute with new knowledge within the specific topic they write about. Therefore, dissertations also serve as very good overviews of earlier research and provide the reader with extensive reference lists.

Sometimes, they might consist of several articles that have been published in journals and a comprehensive summary. In those cases they are called summary dissertations.

Student theses are written by university students, especially on bachelor or master levels. Student theses do not carry the scientific weight of licentiate and doctoral dissertations, but may serve as sources to good references within the field and give you suggestions to methodology and working methods.

Research reports

Writing a research report is a way for a researcher to report on his or her ongoing research, or a newly finished research project. They are often published by a university or research institution and they are published much faster compared to journal articles and books. Just like dissertations, although not to the same extent, reports may contain both research overviews and references to earlier research.

Research reports are usually published in series with names like working papers, discussion papers, technical reports, or research reports. 

Conference proceedings

When researchers participate in conferences, it is with the purpose of presenting their research to colleagues within the same field, often internationally. The papers they have produced for the conference are published in so-called conference proceedings which are similar to anthologies, that is, books where each chapter is written by each of the different researchers at the conference. These conference papers also give good and up-to-date overviews of current research.

Journal articles

Journal articles are published in different kinds of periodicals, such as trade magazines or scholarly journals. They are usually shorter compared to the research reports, for instance. For an overview of journal characteristics, see the guide What is a scholarly journal article?

Here, we will concentrate on scholarly journal articles. They present new research results or new theories. They are usually aimed at the international research community within that specific field of research. This means that they are usually written in English only. In most fields, scholarly journal articles are considered having the highest scientific value of all publication types. This is, among other things, due to the fact that they have to be reviewed by other researchers within the same discipline before they are published. This process is called 'peer review'.

Since a lot of all the new research findings are presented in this kind of journal articles, it is important to include such articles in your own research. As in dissertations and research reports, they will give you a good overview of earlier research, but also important theories and methods within the subject.

What you should bear in mind though is that, since the time period between writing the article and publishing can take up to two years, some facts may have become out of date.

Official publications

Official publications consist of laws, parliamentary publications, and other official material. Older official publications might only be available in print, whereas more recent material is available on the Internet.

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Content updated 2019-08-07

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