Primary Sources: Any source that produces new knowledge.
Secondary Source: Any source that summarizes one or more primary sources.
Tertiary Source: Any source that summarizes one or more secondary sources.
Peer-reviewed: Any source that has been pre-screened by a secret council of the author's peers (fellow scholars).
Scholarly: An adjective designating a source published by a press that specializes in literature produced by professional academics (people paid to research; the so-called experts).
When making a credible argument or research finding you are expected to find sources that support or refute your argument that are highly credible. The highest status supporting material you can find is primary source-material, peer-reviewed (if applicable), and scholarly. The further you get away from this model the less authoritative your supporting material is likely to be considered.
Academics have created specialized search engines to seek out the most credible literature. But no search engine is likely to find everything you need. As much as you'd like there to be a one-stop magic-bullet kind of search engine, it just doesn't exist. Consequently, background research is a lot like finding a job. You start somewhere, build leads, develop a network of information, and keep trying.
Step 1: Do you know your subject?If you were given the choice of picking a subject, you should have either picked a subject that you knew something about, or you should pick a subject that you want to know more about. Research is is incredibly interesting and fascinating when you pick a subject that interests you. However, research is dull and boring if you aren't interested in the subject.
If you know very little about your subject the first step is to get a pretty thorough understanding of the subject basics. I recommend reading a book on the subject. You can ask your professor for a good starting place, or you can browse the virtual shelves of your library or Amazon.com. If picking a book from the shelves or Amazon, you might try Googling for "Best books on [your subject]" to see if that helps. You can also read the reviewer editorials on Amazon to help you decide. In any case, there is no substitute for reading. The book you pick doesn't have to be the best or most authoritative. It just have to give you an excellent introduction to the subject.
if you are really pressed for time, resort to Google and Wikipedia for your background information. This is tantamount to reading the Sparknotes for a book instead of reading it yourself. Maybe you should do both?
Step 2: Generate search termsFinding your search terms is the toughest thing about finding sources. Once you find out what to search on you'll find your trove. For example, if I ask you to write a paper on whaling in Japan. Here's the terms that might get you going:
Japan whalingHow did I get those terms? By reading and books and articles and selecting key terms that I think would distinguish sources I want to find from the billions of other sources that might be available. Each of those terms was used in another written source on the subject.
small type coastal whaling
International Whaling Commission Japan
Japan Minke Fin Bowhead
Japan Institute Cetacean Research
Step 3: SearchActually, steps 2 and 3 are symbiotic. Searches on term sets generate search results that produce new search term sets, etc. Each of those search term sets produces a slightly different search result with many interesting sources. But where to search?
I start at my University's library website at http://library.tamu.edu. There is a search box there and I select the "Articles" tab; This reflects my bias towards wanting to use scholarly articles rather than books. You can try searching the "Books & More" tab also, or both. The University search engine is specialized to search mostly scholarly and academic sources, so your search results will be highly biased towards credible resources.
The "Articles" tab is a pretty ingenious tab that actually searches through hundreds of different databases. Sometimes the results are too broad so I select a specific database. My favorite database for basic social science research is "Academic Search Complete", which you would find by searching for "Academic Search Complete" on the "Databases" search tab. Academic Search complete is just one of the many databases that stores scholarly materials, but it has a lot of overlap with hundred of other databases and its results are easier to sort through and filter.
Step 4: Retrieve resources and repeat steps 2 and 3For instant gratification, download articles right away and get reading! But, don't ignore resources that aren't full-text online. You have to actually go to the Library to get many resources (shock!). Trust me, it's well worth it and an excellent habit to get into. If your Library doesn't have it you'll need to request it via Interlibrary Loan (ILL). Honestly, that's even more gratifying unless you happen to be at Harvard. ILL will get your book or article in a few days and have it waiting for you at circulation.
Note: My style of research is to get as many sources on the subject as possible. I like to have them piled up on my desk as I start and continue working. Get all the sources you can, even if your not sure how helpful they will be. This is why I encouraged you to pick an interesting subject. You may or may not have time to read everything you find, but you can read some and peruse others. It's just so much easier to write effective research papers when you have all the reference materials handy.
Each time you find a source take a look at its author, title, keywords, and biblbiography. Use the former items to conduct additional searches. Use the latter item to look for new sources that you might need to rely on.
Tip: If you can get to the Library to do your research, look at all the books on the shelves near the books you find in the search engines. Quite often there are books on the shed nearby that are relevant.
Step 4B: How to retrieve a specific book or article if you have a citation
If you have a specific book, look for it in your library catalog. If its not there request it from ILL immediately.
To find a specific article, you need the author, title, journal title, year of publication, volume number, and page number. Search for the journal title by name on the "e-Journals" tab of the library website. Follow the various links til you get to a page for the journal. Then navigate to the correct year, volume, and page number. If the journal is not provided by your library's online collections you can look for the printed version in the library catalog. Failing that you'll need to provide the information to ILL so they can request it for you. It only takes a few days to get an article from ILL. Important: Normally you have to be on campus or using the VPN to access the University's online collections.
Step 4C: Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com)
Sometimes you can bypass the University's search engines by using Google Scholar. It works a lot like the University's amalgamated search engine by filtering out regular websites and focusing more on scholarly sources. Google scholar provides interesting and often useful results. If looking for a single article this can sometimes be more time effective than navigating through the University website. Sometimes Google Scholar directs you to downloadable resources that bypass copyright protections. Google Scholar results are not as comprehensive as the University websites search results. Compare for yourself by searching on the terms provided above.
Step 5: Google (and other generic search engines)If you really want to see a different set of results, try those terms on regular Google (http://www.google.com). Google produces an entirely different type of results. I would not start with Google unless you really don't know all that much about what you are researching. In that case, use Google to get started learning about your subject.
However, Google can fill in significant gaps in your overall coverage of a subject. Three things that Google is excellent for are 1) Finding current events/news items about your subject; 2) finding images of your subject; 3) finding experts on your subject; and 4) finding professional organizations about your subject. Some caveats about those, however:
When looking for news sources try and select those published by the most reputable news agencies. With experience you will learn what these are, but I prefer sources from publications that have been around for a very long time, like the New York Times, The Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times. Keep in mind that an AP newswire story can be repeated with a different title by many different outlets. The top news services are Associated Press and Reuters. It used to be that their sources were developed into news stories by individual papers, but nowadays many sites just repeat them verbatim. If that seems to be the case you may as well just site the article from their websites (http://www.ap.org/ and http://www.reuters.com/). Avoid blog entries and editorials. Why? They may or may not be authoritative, but your readers may not have confidence in them as reliable sources. Parroting an opinion from an editorial or blog can give the impression that you can't think for yourself, possibly reducing your credibility.
Assume that any images that you find are copyright protected. Do not use them in your papers and reports unless authorized to do so. If you read the fine print on may websites you might find limited rights are granted if you give proper credit.
DO NOT Assume that experts and organizations have well-rounded coverage on a topic and represent diverse points of view. While this may be the case, you have to consider, especially for controversial or politicized topics, that information is tailored to reflect a particular bias. Just remember, anyone can publish just about anything they want on a website. As you gain expertise in a subject you will be better equipped to recognize authoritative sources from uninformed or misleading sources. Until then, approach every website with appropriate suspicion (cautious optimism?).
WikipediaWikipedia is a fantastic resource that I have come to embrace even though for years I was adamantly opposed to it. Start here if you are researching a subject you know very little about. It's accuracy and comprehensiveness is a product of millions of dedicated users, many of whom prize objectivity. It is as good as any source so long as you don't consider it ultimately authoritative. It is, at best, a tertiary source -- very helpful for getting a good summary of a subject or topic, and it may clarify significant viewpoints of the subject that you hadn't considered. However, its authoritativeness is about at the level of hearsay (i.e. something you heard from somebody else). Every fact on Wikipedia undoubtedly comes from somewhere else. A good Wikipedia entry tells you where. Unfortunately, you don't know if the referring source is the best or most authoritative source for that information either. However, that insight comes with more experience. So here's my recommendation: Wikipedia is like hearing something from an "expert" on TV that you aren't sure is true. You should wonder whether the information is correct, and do some background checking into where they learned it from. When citing the information, cite the sources that Wikipedia is derived from rather than Wikipedia itself (the same as you would information you heard on TV).
I hope that helps you get started just a little.