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*Reusable LibGuides Boxes: Using Sources

How to Read, Take Notes On and Understand Journal Articles and Academic Papers

This video offers a thorough process of taking notes on academic papers, with slight emphasis on learning terminology and using Evernote.

How To Read a Scholarly Journal Article

This video excels at describing and highlighting the anatomy of scholarly articles and their value to readers.


Things to Consider When Reading a Scholarly Article

Consider the following points when reading a scholarly article:

  1. Know your research question or argument. Though your question/argument may change or evolve as you delve deeper into the research process, you will want to have a solid idea of your research focus.
  2. You don't have to read the entire article in order. Start with the abstract which will give you a general summary of the article. If the abstract seems relevant then move to the conclusion or discussion section of the article to gain a better understanding of the article's main claims. At this point if the article does not seem relevant or useful then discard it. However, if the article does seem useful then spend as much time as necessary reading the article.
  3. Read critically. What is the author's argument? You will need to use your judgment when evaluating each source of information. Further research may be necessary if you find the author to be biased or you do not believe the validity of their argument. 
  4. Read the reference section. Reading the references or works cited may lead you to other useful resources. You might also get a better understanding of the major players in the area you are researching. 
  5. Take notes. How you do this is up to you. Make sure you keep your research question and argument in mind so you can be more efficient when taking notes.

Source Types

Source Types


an arrow in the bullseye of a targetWhen evaluating the quality of the information you are using, it is useful to identify if you are using a Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary source. By doing so, you will be able recognize if the author is reporting on his/her own first hand experiences or relying on the views of others.

One easy way to think about the differences between these types of sources is to think of them as concentric rings on a target.  Primary sources are the bullseye (a first-person account of an event or experience), secondary sources are the first ring (one step removed, commenting on and interpreting the primary source), tertiary are the outer ring (compiling and pointing the researcher to the secondary sources).

Source Type


When Would I Use This Type?

A primary source is a first person account by someone who experienced or witnessed an event. This original document has not been previously published or interpreted by anyone else.

First person account of an event

First publication of a scientific study

Speech or lecture

Original artwork

Handwritten manuscript

Letters between two people

A diary

Historical documents, e.g. Bill of Rights

Primary sources provide first hand accounts of events that were documented later.

A primary source is useful if you want to provide direct evidence of an event or time in history.

When you use primary sources you have to start by asking a lot of questions about the source itself. It's important to consider who created the document and for what purpose, among other things. 

A secondary source is one step removed from the primary original source. The author is reexamining, interpreting and forming conclusions based on the information that is conveyed in the primary source. 

Newspaper reporting on a scientific study

Review of a music CD or art show


Scholarly books or articles

Secondary sources are how we often engage with scholarly writings and learn about past events. 

Sources that have been published very recently will reflect the current theories and understanding of the past. If you use a secondary source that was published decades ago, it is important to know what subsequent scholars have written on the topic and what criticism they have made about the earlier work or its approach to the topic.

A tertiary source is further removed from primary source. It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source.


Index to articles

Library catalog

Encyclopedia entry

Often textbooks are a good way to think about tertiary sources, they can lead you to additional secondary sources. 

Image Credit: Target free icon created by Fir3Ghost is used under's license.

Organizing Sources

How to Read a Scholarly Article


The word BEAM superimposed over an architectural drawing of columns and beams

A better way to think about your sources


Red text: "Background." Image: icon of an open book with a globe above it, circled by a red background Green text: "Exhibit." Image: icon of a paper on an envelope with a magnifying glass, circled by a greenbackground Purple text: "Argument." Image: icon of stacked pages of an article circled by a purple background Yellow text: "Method." Image: icon of different charts, circled by a yellow background


Factual information that provides an overview of or context for a topic.

Sources that will be analyzed or interpreted

Critical views from other scholars or commentators that can be agreed with, disagreed with, or built upon.

The method and theories used to shape a research methodology, approach, or analytical lens


Encyclopedia entries, overviews in books, statistics, historical newspaper articles

Text of a novel, field observation, focus group data, interviews, performances, results from an experiment

Scholarly articles, books, critical reviews, editorials

references to theorists (Foucault, Said) or theories (feminism, critical race theory), information on a research methodology

Where are you most likely to use these sources?


Body, Results section

Body, sometimes in the Introduction or a Literature Review

Methods section, sometimes referenced in the Introduction or the Body

Rather than only think about whether a source is primary, secondary, or tertiary; instead think about how you are going to use that source. If you have at least one source in each category, your writing will be stronger and your arguments will be better supported.

Sources can serve more than one function!

For instance, a journal article could:

  • provide background information on a topic
  • serve as an exhibit you will analyze
  • make an argument for you to respond to
  • or could include a method for you to follow in organizing your own data gathering and reporting

However, some sources are focused on a single function.  For example, an encyclopedia entry on “Alzheimer's disease” is likely to only serve as background information.


The BEAM method is from: Bizup, Joseph. “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing.Rhetoric Review 27.1 (2008): 72-86.
This page is adapted from "Source Functions: Background, Exhibits, Argument, Method (BEAM)" from the University of California Merced Library.

Image Credits:

BEAM title image: 10. Column and Beam Details - Hantz House, 855 Fairview Drive, Fayetteville, Washington County, AR Drawings from Survey HABS AR-54 created by the Historic American Buildings Survey is in the Public Domain.
Background icon: Investigation created by Nhor Phai is used under's license.
Exhibit icon: Encyclopedia created by Talha Dogar is used under's license.
Argument icon: Application created by Freepik is used under's license.
Method icon: Pie chart created by Freepik is used under's license.


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Science Library: 317-940-9937

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