Selecting Secondary Sources

Stacey Corbitt

Chapter Overview

This chapter aims to help you make determinations about the appropriateness and value of secondary sources: broadly, this book’s use of the term secondary sources refers to published materials you choose as evidence supporting the arguments you write. The chapter “Writing Topic Proposals” Activity B, Table 2, presents a set of checklists for evaluating the quality of secondary sources. Similarly, Figures 5 and 6 in the “Writing Essays” chapter of this textbook also provide source quality evaluation tools. This chapter supplements the efforts of the two others identified by providing methods you may use to choose appropriate evidence; manage evidence as you collect it; and address errors in logic.

How can I determine whether a source actually provides support for my argument?

Step One: Read (a lot)

Reading is often the first step to really understanding a topic, and can naturally evolve into identifying arguments. Whether you choose a research topic or one is assigned to you, expect to read enough source material about the topic that you could write two (or more) very different arguments based on the sources you read.


For example, consider the topic of risks associated with medically nonessential aesthetic surgery. Working with a partner in class, discuss the various perspectives that may be held by members of the groups listed below. Write one thesis statement for each group you think could represent a position that group could support. Unless you are well familiar with the topic, you may want to consult a database (or Google) to understand the possible points of view.

Group Perspective-based thesis (position) statement


Parents of preteen girls  


Cosmetic surgeons  


Modeling Agencies  


Compare your team’s draft position statements with those of others in the class, including a discussion of the sources you and your peers reviewed. What can you determine about the sources you might find if you were researching arguments about the topic?

What questions did your initial findings raise in relation to the quality of the sources you found?


Step Two: Evaluate the credibility and reliability of sources

Now you have considered a topic and quickly reviewed some information about it: you have completed the first step in developing and supporting a researched argument. It’s important to remember at this stage that college-level writers do not decide what to write and then look for sources that support those ideas. Instead, it is critical to approach a topic with an open mind so you can consider all relevant source material you find in an unbiased way. Only then can writers develop a fair argument that relies on quality, credible, and reliable sources of supporting evidence. Researched documents represent a process of discovery by writers and readers alike.

In addition to the methods and tools identified in the first paragraph of this chapter, what other investigation can help you determine whether you have found strong source material? Consider the following questions and be prepared to discuss their relevance in class:

  • Does the document provide a reference section listing the author’s own sources?
  • Does the document attempt to entertain the audience with humor or colorful graphics?
  • Does the document contain advertising or other sponsor-based materials?
  • Can you find recent scholarly publications that rely on this document as a source?

Do you think the different perspectives listed above represent a potential for bias among sources? If so, what would you do as a researcher to recognize biased sources?


Step Three: Avoid the pitfalls

Much like the effort we must make to avoid searching for source material that supports an already-conceived argument, simply relying on one source to define the points of your own argument can lead to mimicking the source, which results in plagiarism.


Solve this dilemma by reading and collecting evidence from multiple sources on different perspectives. Develop a list of keywords and key phrases you identify on multiple perspectives. This effort will help you to avoid relying too much on one source. Another result may be that you collect a lot of potential evidence for two or more sides of an issue. Read enough about a topic to understand what the different perspectives may be, possibly starting with an academic database like Opposing Viewpoints. If your university library does not subscribe to this or a similar database, the document found here provides for a free trial usage of the service.


Step Four: Weed out your collection and manage your source materials

If you carefully followed the process outlined in this section of the chapter, you may find you have two sets of source materials:

  • one set you might deem potentially very valuable as evidence because it meets the requirements of the various checklists and tools you applied to determine credibility and reliability; and
  • another set that seems reliable enough, but may not be relevant to your argument.
  1. Begin the process by skimming all of your promising journal articles and books. If you also have web content in the “potentially very valuable” pile, check to see whether the useful parts of those sources are linked documents (.pdfs) rather than dynamic webpage content: in other words, be certain you know what your source document actually is.
  1. Similarly, if you have material from trade journals, popular periodicals or newspapers, or blogs, take some time to locate their DOIs or otherwise confirm at what level those online documents are permanent.
  1. If possible, further narrow down your potential evidence by building a working bibliography that contains complete information for each source. You can always add or delete sources as your specific argument develops.


How can I recognize and avoid or address errors in logic?

Errors in logic, or logical fallacies, as discussed in this textbook are flawed reasoning presented in an argument. The best way to recognize them is to practice careful, critical reading; and understanding why logic is flawed allows you to avoid or revise for these errors. Some logical fallacies are no doubt already familiar to you, while others may be new. Take some time to explore the interactive website and ask your instructor about any fallacies you find confusing. Be prepared to discuss your findings and questions in class.

Based on your understanding of those listed on the website, what are examples of some logical fallacies you have encountered? Remember that your encounters could be in the form of items you read as well as other forms of media you encounter.

Fallacy name Give an example

Certain logical fallacies are also quite common in person-to-person communication. For example, consider the tu quoque fallacy (presented at this link):

Just for fun: can you identify an example of the tu quoque fallacy being played out in a scene from a favorite film or television program? Describe the scene below, including why you think it represents the fallacy; and paste a link, if one is available.

Chapter conclusion

Selecting secondary sources may require a variety of skills as you develop new ways of thinking about sources. Writing your opinions and finding sources that simply agree with what you think is unacceptable. Instead, the challenge of writing arguments at the college level requires you to begin at a place with an open, questioning mind. As you read and take notes, your arguments take shape around the information you discover from a variety of perspectives worth contemplating. Your ability to choose appropriate evidence; manage evidence as you collect it; and address errors in logic will develop through a process of critical reading and thought.


  1. Using your university library’s website, access the “Gale Opposing Viewpoints – In Context” database (or another similar database).
  1. Locate the database’s collection of potential sources related to a controversial subject, either chosen by your instructor or self-selected (consult your instructor for specific direction).
  1. Review at least 5 sources of information representing at least 2 perspectives on the controversial topic. Assess the reliability, validity, and relevance of the source documents according to the guidelines provided in this chapter.
  1. Using the worksheet provided on the next page, prepare for a discussion with your instructor or a peer, as directed by your instructor. The worksheet will provide a rough framework that allows you to connect your argument claims to specific pieces of evidence you collect and provide a basis for writing the argument.



Flip Creative, Meaden, S., Richardson, J., and Smith, A. (2020) Thou shalt not commit logical fallacies. License: CC-BY-NC.


Source Selection Worksheet

  1. What is your position on the topic? The answer will be the basis for your thesis statement.


  1. What is the main position or argument that is contrary to your position? How do you know?



  1. What are the facts that directly support your position? State the facts in complete sentences in the left column. For each fact, provide the bibliographic information for the source that provides evidence to support this claim.
    Fact Source Information









  1. What are the facts that directly support the contrary position? State the facts in complete sentences in the left column. For each fact, provide the bibliographic information for the source that provides evidence to support this claim.
    Fact Source information









  1. What weakness(es) can you identify in the evidence you found in support of the contrary position?
    Source Weakness










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