Anglistisches Seminar Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
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Reading & Research Stages: Working with Sources

Armed with your provisional thesis, as well as a more general idea of the topics or themes that interest you in regard to your particular paper or assignment, you should start evaluating the various sources at your disposal with your provisional thesis in mind. In doing so, you are looking not only for evidence to support your argument and demonstrate the validity of your thesis, but also for potential counter-arguments or qualifications you need to consider in your paper. In order to demonstrate your ability to engage in academic discussions, you need to locate your ideas within these discussions. This requires you to take a stance on your topic through your argument.

Every research paper draws on two kinds of sources:

Primary sources

Primary materials are texts or objects that are open to original analysis and interpretation (novels, poems, plays, films, autobiographies, historical texts, corpora, data). You can employ evidence from these materials in several ways: by summarizing events and providing descriptive details; by presenting direct quotations; and by developing your own, original analyses or interpretations. For example, in a paper on romantic entanglements in a given novel, you would provide your reader with a brief description of the key relationships in the story, present your interpretation of their significance, and use direct quotes to illustrate your points. In a paper on politeness strategies employed in an online discussion, you would present a description of the forum and its participants, your classification of the politeness strategies in evidence, providing direct quotations as examples, and your analysis of the reasons some strategies were more popular than others.

How do you work with primary sources? You should read/watch closely, taking detailed notes and paying particular attention to aspects of the source that relate to your topic in a general sense, and to your argument and thesis statement in detail. What is called “close reading” in literature is crucial, as is what Nietzsche called “slow reading,” that is,

langsam, tief, rück- und vorsichtig, mit Hintergedanken, mit offen gelassenen Türen, mit zarten Fingern und Augen lesen.

Working with primary soures in linguistics requires careful attention to how you collect, classify and analyze your primary source information. In corpus studies, for example, be sure to copy examples verbatim, keep track of your search terms and remember to note relevant contextual information.

Remember that you are a scholar, and as such, you are fully qualified to present an original interpretation, as long as you back it up with sufficient, compelling evidence.  Engage your primary sources with that thought in mind.

Secondary sources

Secondary materials are usually texts that analyze, interpret, or discuss primary sources.  They are often called “criticism” or “critical work.” Your argument should relate to criticism, but it can do so in a number of ways: by agreeing, opposing, giving a nuanced and balanced response (some agreement, some disagreement), and so on. You will usually refer to secondary materials either in summary or paraphrase, or by direct quotation, but less analysis or interpretation will be devoted to these sources. Consider criticism as “in conversation” with your argument.

Working with secondary sources requires you to exercise some judgment, since not every source is reputable and reliable.  Before you begin to read, consider the source’s provenance. Has the source been published by a well-known author and/or publisher, or not? In the case of books, the presses or imprints of many European and American universities would usually count as “reputable.” In the case of articles you find in a library database, you should look for a tag on the database search screen that indicates whether the source is “peer-reviewed”. If it is, it has generally been assessed to be worthwhile by a group of experts; the article may still be irrelevant for your purposes, but its source is still solid. If the source is a website in the public domain, evaluate its accuracy, authority, objectivity and purpose with great care, since many websites are not sufficiently reliable for scholarly research. See below for tips on evaluating the reliability of websites.

You can find secondary sources in a number of ways:

Libraries. Use the HEIDI catalog to look for sources in the AS library, in the UB, or in other faculty libraries. Be aware that HEIDI is only a partial catalog and many books and sources published before the 1970s will not be found in it. The AS library's card catalog provides a complete listing of its holdings. Once you have found a few titles that look potentially useful, go to the library and look at works with similar call numbers (so, for an paper on Fitzgerald, you could find any critical work on Fitzgerald and simply go and see what else is around that particular call number). This strategy is useless in the UB, as books in the open stacks are catalogued by date of acquisition, but the keywords ("Schlagwörter") listed in HEIDI can lead you to related works.

Library electronic resources and databases. You will find the most important resources for Anglistik/Amerikanistik by searching online, again through the library portal (HEIDI --> Elektronische Medien --> Datenbanken --> Fachübersicht: Anglistik, Amerikanistik). The main bibliographic source for all topics in literature is the MLA International Bibliography but the list includes a variety of other bibliographies and guides (e.g., Anglistik Guide), and online access to the Oxford English Dictionary. For linguistics papers, The Linguist List: International Linguistics Community Online lists several resources such as books, papers and journals. You can also find other bibliographic search engines and journal sources—some much broader, others more limited or specialized—by looking through sources alphabetically (--> Datenbanken --> Alphabetische Liste). For example, JSTOR, ProQuest and Project Muse cover a wide range of journals in the humanities, including some dating back to the 19th century, and Academic Search Premier uses the same search platform as the MLA but includes a broader range of subject areas.

Internet. Sometimes, you may find it faster, more convenient, and in certain ways more useful to conduct a source search on the Internet before you use the libraries.  Google, for example, has two useful academic tools—Google Books and Google Scholar (--> Google --> Mehr)—that allow you to search for and through books, journals, articles, etc.; you might want to use these to decide which sources are worth your time before you go to the library to find them. For contemporary literature, about which scholarly work is often hard to find, various periodicals may be of use, particularly review magazines like the NYRB (, LRB (, and the New Republic (

Online encyclopedia resources such as Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica may also provide useful starting points for your research, although it is generally not a good idea to cite these sources directly. Several online sources are not reliable because anyone can edit them. When using such sources, it is a good idea to follow up on the references given, rather than citing the encyclopedia directly.

To evaluate the utility and reliability of Web sources, try the following sites:

UC Berkeley - Teaching Library Internet Workshops,Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask":

Oxford Brookes University Library, “Evaluating Web sources”



How do you work with secondary sources you have deemed potentially useful?  It is often helpful to begin by skimming text in order to get a quick overview of each source.  Once you have eliminated works with limited or no utility, you can read the rest more carefully, taking note of specific arguments and details.  Again, remember that as a scholar, you are not obligated to agree with all other scholars; you need to be able to identify the reasons you disagree and show why your disagreement is valid.

What do you do if there seem to be no secondary sources related directly to your topic? First, check again, and consider asking a reference librarian for help. If you still find nothing, look for secondary sources that are related to your topic even if they do not cover it directly. For example, if you find no secondary sources on homosexuality in Dickens' Hard Times, look for works on homosexuality in Victorian literature or gender relations in Dickens' novels; they can suggest interesting questions and useful approaches for your own analysis.

Letzte Änderung: Föhr am 07.August 2015
Verantwortlich: Lusin, Föhr