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Evaluating Information in the Research Process: Step 5: Identify Key Sources

Created by Health Science Librarians

Step 5: Identify Key Sources

StepStep 5: Identify Key Sources

Identify the sources that are key to your project. This will make the information more manageable and relevant. 

How many sources are enough? That depends on your topic, your style of working, the scope of your project, and assigned requirements.  You might identify several sources you consider important, but only a few that are absolutely essential. 

One likely scenario is that you may identify a few key sources that help you focus your project, but as your work progresses you may revisit other sources or identify new ones. 

Review collected online sources

If you worked through Step 4: Refine Topic, you now have a well organized set of sources to review. This gives you a good basis for identifying key sources. 

Start by skimming sources, as described in Step 3: Do Initial Search. Now you should have a better idea of what you are looking for, and will probably want to read in greater depth. You are looking to zero in closely on sources and themes in the literature that are most relevant to your needs. You can make use of the "Notes" field in Zotero or EndNote to record themes and impressions.

Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox for February 1996.) 

Some web sites contain two versions of their content, one for online reading and one for printing (usually in Adobe pdf format). To access pdf documents, you need the Adobe Reader (which is free) installed on your computer. You can download it from Adobe at

Choose key sources

Read through the content of potential key sources, and decide which ones are most critical to your project (don't throw away the others--you may need them later!). 

Choose sources that meet criteria for evaluating web sites (see Evaluation Criteria).

Examine sources carefully to determine how relevant they are to your particular topic.

Pay attention to your subjective reactions. You may find the writing style or approach of one source to be preferable to another. 

You don’t have to agree with a source for it to be a key source. Carefully researching a source with a different view than your own is valuable to your learning and may actually make your work more credible and persuasive.

Consider using a variety of  key sources. For example, you could have:

  • one source that provides a good overview
  • two sources with sharply contrasting views 
  • one source for technical information 
  • one source that concentrates on social implications  

For more information on sources, see the UNC Writing Center's handout on Evidence, which discusses sources as evidence and the distinction between primary and secondary sources. 

Outcomes for Step 5: Identify Key Sources 

  • Copies of key publications and documents (either printed or on an electronic reader such as iPad or Kindle) 
  • Identification of main sources 
  • Copies of any key sources that are not available online

NEXT: Step 6, Study Key Sources