Tips for Organizing Sources for Research Papers

You’ve narrowed down a topic for your paper, now what? In this post, I focus on one key element — sources.

What are Sources?

Sources provide information. A source can be a person, document, object (e.g. painting, map, potsherd), location, etc. When it comes to undergraduate (and graduate) research papers, we’re usually dealing with written sources.

There are (typically) three categories of sources:

  1. Primary
  2. Secondary
  3. Tertiary

The distinction between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources can be a bit hazy. The definitions of these categories can vary according to your discipline. Personally, I like the definitions offered by Virginia Tech’s library. They provide examples of the differences in sources between the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. I encourage you to read through the page and look at the examples.

Primary Sources

When you’re writing a research paper, you want to be sure you have located and engaged with as many primary sources as you can for your topic. 

But what is a primary source for archaeology?

Well, that can be tricky. I like to think of a primary source as sort of a ‘patient zero’. This means the primary source is the first instance in which an aspect of material culture (e.g. first mention of the discovery of a site or find), results of a study (e.g. identification and analysis of faunal remains at a site(s)), or an idea (e.g. the concept of entanglement) is introduced in the literature. When it comes to methods and ideas, archaeologists tend to incorporate work from other disciplines so some of your primary sources might include texts from other fields of study.

Secondary Sources

Engaging with primary sources is a critical part of developing as an archaeologist and scholar. This importance is probably best explained in the context of secondary sources.

Secondary sources can be texts that summarize existing knowledge on a topic (which is super useful if you’re writing a paper!) OR they can be works that offer commentary, discussion, or interpretations of one or many primary sources.

The archaeological record is inherently fragmentary and interpretation is key. Secondary sources can be just as important as primary sources when it comes to understanding an ongoing debate about a specific aspect of the archaeology. Nonetheless, in order to understand the context, nuances, (mis)interpretations of the debates and discussions in secondary sources, you have to go back and engage with the primary source.

Tertiary Sources

Finally, tertiary sources like textbooks, encyclopedias, or handbooks are a great way to get a general overview of a topic. They even might point you in the direction of useful primary and secondary sources.

However, if they are your sole source of information, it usually shows that you have not delved into the material fully and you only grasp a superficial understanding of the topic. In some instances, that might okay, but, for the most part, instructors want you to dig deeper.

Finding Sources

So we know that locating different types of sources is important, but how do you get started? Here are a 4 tips:

Tip #1: Get to Know Your Library and Librarian(s)

Sometimes students never use more than their institution’s online catalog (if that!). Trust me, that was me during my undergraduate years. One of the first orientations I had as a doctoral student, was with the library. Initially, I thought it would be a waste of an hour of my time, but, boy, was I wrong.

In that hour, I learned about so many resources our library offers that I continue to use to this day. For example, our library offers short introductions and even in-depth tutorials on various software including reference managers, mapping programs, and even Adobe Photoshop. If we need a source that isn’t located in our library or in our consortium, we can still request them. I also learned that our library has a dedicated discipline-specific librarian. This means they have a good understanding of the types of materials we are working with and the sources we are looking for. I’ve reached out to our archaeology librarian numerous times and he has been more than helpful.

Now each library is different; however, it is worth investigating what resources are available to you. Many libraries do some form of outreach in order to engage students and make them aware of their resources. While these sorts of sessions usually occur at the beginning of the academic year or semester, you can still reach out at any time to learn what resources would be useful for you. In terms of sources here are some useful things you might learn:

  • Databases that your university has access to (e.g. JSTOR, Wiley, ScienceDirect, etc.)
  • Both online and physical journals that your university subscribes to (Why pay if you’re university already has a subscription?)
  • Consortiums that your university participates in (this gives you access to more material)
  • Average time needed to obtain books, articles, etc. from the consortium (this is important so you know when to start locating sources)
  • Other libraries you can access with your University ID (sometimes it’s quicker or only possible to locate a source if you go there yourself)
  • And so much more…

Tip #2: Peruse Google Scholar

Google Scholar is an incredibly useful, powerful, and FREE search engine that displays search results only from scholarly sources. These sources can include articles, books, dissertations, patents, etc. For a given source, you will often be able to read an abstract (or excerpt) and click on a direct link that will lead you to the source.

There are further tutorials that show you how to effectively search and manage results within the tool. While Google Scholar is quite powerful and helpful, I have found that it does not always locate obscure, yet important, texts for some archaeological topics. Nonetheless, it is an excellent place to start when looking for sources.

Tip #3: Locate Literature Reviews

Locating an excellent review article on your topic or an aspect of your topic is like striking gold. Why? Well, someone has already done the work of locating many of the important primary and secondary sources for you. While I would not rely solely on one review article for your sources, (because people can forget things and the article might not include the most recent discussions on a given topic) they are a great place to start.

Not sure where to locate a review article? Try The Annual Review of Anthropology. This series is part of a larger initiative that invites scholars to review the current state of knowledge (and the process leading up to it) for a specific topic in their field. The Annual Review of Anthropology reviews topics in each of the sub-disciplines of anthropology, including archaeology. Recent topics in the archaeology sections included Pleistocene Overkill and North American Mammalian Extinctions, The Archaeology of Ritual, and Recent Developments in High-Density Survey and Measurement for Archaeology.

Another potential resource for review articles is scholarly databases. Some databases allow you to specify the type of article you are looking for and you might be able to check a box that says ‘Review’ or ‘Review Article’. ScienceDirect and EBSCOhost are two search engines that have this feature under the ‘Advanced’ options. Be aware that there are articles out there that aren’t intended to be review articles, but still have an excellent bibliography containing valuable sources. Such sources might not turn up in these searches.

Master’s theses or doctoral dissertations can also be a great resource for locating sources. Graduate students have to provide a literature review in the final document they produce for their degree. Some go into exhaustive detail in these review chapters. This might not be fun for their committee, but it’s great for you! There are a number of online databases that provide access to dissertations. Check with your library to see which ones you have access to.

Also, since there is no magical formula for finding a review article (if you know of one, please let me know!), it’s worth asking your instructor if they know of any sources. Now please remember the tips I offered in a previous post, specifically, doing your own research first. See what’s out there and then ask. 

Tip #4: Check Out Academia or ResearchGate

If you mix social networking and sharing research you end with platforms like Academia and ResearchGate. These platforms allow scholars to set up their own profile and share their research with the public. This is done by either by providing a citation or a PDF copy of their work. You do have to create an account to gain access, but it’s free. These social platforms are quite useful when trying to locate sources, especially some harder to access material (e.g. chapters in edited volumes, technical reports, conference proceedings, etc.).

Managing Sources

As you start to collect sources, a reference manager is vital. A reference manager is a tool that allows you to record, track, and compile citations and bibliographic sources. Many archaeologists I know use EndNote, Mendeley, or Zotero; however, there are many other reference managers out there (check out this list on Wikipedia) and the costs can range from free to freemium to paid.

Personally, I use Mendeley. This is primarily based on habit as I have used this since I was a Master’s student. It has some features (though not necessarily exclusive to the program) that I often use including:

  • A Microsoft Word plug-in that automatically formats both in-text citations and the resulting bibliography
  • The ability to automatically rename file names of sources and store them in a specific location
  • Syncs my citations (and notes) to a cloud that I can access from any computer (this was especially useful when my computer died during finals some years ago)

There are numerous articles out there that compare reference managers. The key is to get one that works for you and use it! Trust me, it will save you a lot of time and you will be far more organized.

Engaging With Sources

As I was approaching my comprehensive exams, I was quickly getting overwhelmed by the sheer amount of reading I had to do and the subsequent synthesis. My fellow cohort-mate, Joelle Nivens, gave me sage advice that she received from a professor, “Write as you read.”

What does that even mean? It means that writing should be an integral component of your reading process.

Why is this important? First off, most of us don’t remember everything that we read so it’s good to write things down. Secondly, writing as you read allows you to continually engage and reflect with the material you’re working on, thus, getting you closer to the writing goal you are working towards.

Most of us might do this already; however, how we do it varies. Sometimes this process might be quite haphazard and not be super well thought out. Raul Pacheco-Vega has an excellent blog post (and all-around great academic productivity blog) that lists how students can go about engaging their reading. I highly encourage you to read his post as there is no one-fits-all approach to ‘writing as you read’. Try out different methods and see what works for you.

If you’re curious about what I do, you’re in luck! I use a writing prompt adapted from Irene L. Clark’s book, Writing the Successful Thesis and Dissertation: Entering the Conversation. Below I have outlined my prompt and the rationale for each category.

  • Bibliography: I copy and paste the citation from Mendeley. I do this so I know exactly what I am summarizing and so I have a backup copy of the citation.
  • The thesis of this text is…: Here I write a couple of sentences on the main idea of the text. It makes for a useful quick reference if I’m reading multiple summaries at once and it also ensures I know what the text is about.
  • Basic Summary: This section can be highly variable. For those texts that I feel are quite integral to my writing project, this section will be quite detailed. For those texts that I feel aren’t as important or just tangential to my writing goal, this aspect gets less time. Also, as I’m summarizing, I put the page numbers in parenthesis (e.g. A literature review of copper finds for Bronze Age Oman is given (114-117)), which makes referring back to and citing specific aspects of the text easier during the writing process.
  • The most interesting ideas in this text are…and why do I find these ideas interesting?: This question allows me to tease out parts of the text that I found interesting and reflect on why. Writing this out has served as a helpful reference when drafting discussion or conclusion sections of papers.
  • What aspects of the topic do this text overlook or distort?: It’s also important to be critical of texts and this question gives me space to reflect on that. This question is especially useful when analyzing secondary sources and trying to understand the various components of a larger topical debate.
  • How is this text of potential use to my writing project?: Usually, I’m reading academic texts for a specific writing goal and I like to explicitly write out how a certain text contributes to that. Sometimes the text can support an argument I’m making, which happens to be a foundational work for a topic, is an interesting case study, etc. Nonetheless, I clearly write out how this text helps (or doesn’t) help me reach my writing goal.
  • Further texts to look into: Often when we read texts, we find other potentially useful and interesting references cited within them. I like to create a space where I can paste (or write out) references that I want to follow up on. I usually write a note on why a potential source could help and if I found numerous sources, I usually rank them, in terms of priority.

If you are writing a dissertation, check out my curated page on dissertation advice.

Final Thoughts

At the outset, approaching a term paper can seem daunting for many of us. This often leads to procrastination and, usually, a poor end result. Trust me, I have been there. Everyone says start early, but sometimes we simply don’t know how. This makes starting even harder.

For me, my term papers got much better once I got a better handle on my sources. Spending a day or so locating sources was not too difficult (once I got the hang of it) and this made starting easier.

Once I found sources and engaged with them by writing as I read, I ended with quality notes that balanced summarizing information and writing out my own thoughts about the topic. Some of these notes could then be directly pasted into my word document, thus, I wasn’t staring at a blank white page thinking, “How the heck am I supposed to start this?” The strategies that I described above helped me to get more organized and, more importantly, get started.

What about you? What are your favorite strategies for finding, managing, and engaging with sources? Let me know in the comments section!  

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  • Hi, Smith..thanks very much for this page. I’ll explore your site a bit more with great interest 🙂

    I just looked at the Wikipedia page on Mendeley and it mentions that some of the changes made by Elsevier might not be ideal. I am wondering…has this changed your view on what you might use as a/your reference manager?

    Thanks, Warwick

    • Hi Warwick! Thanks for your comment. I have definitely experienced some of the not so ideal changes in the past couple of months. I didn’t lose citations, but many attached pdfs to citations became unattached. I also experienced issues with the display of my Mendeley (way too zoomed out) when I got a new computer a few months ago. The customer service team eventually got back to me with a workaround. I do feel that the progress and updates have not kept up at a pace that I feel it should. I am still very happy with the Word plugin. In the new year, I will be exploring other options to see if it still makes sense for me to continue to use Mendeley. If I make a change, I will be sure to update this post. Thanks again for your comment.

Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.



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