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Evaluating Information in the Research Process: Step 6: Study Key Sources

Created by Health Science Librarians

Step 6: Study key sources

stepStep 6: Study Key Sources

Study your key sources in order to gain an in-depth understanding of your topic. 

At an elementary level, understanding means retaining information: when asked, you can repeat what the author or source said. But an in-depth understanding also includes insights into issues such as 

  • relationships between pieces of information
  • the point of view of the author
  • other possible interpretations of information
  • implications for society or for research.

To gain an in-depth understanding of your key sources, use the strategies described below (in no particular order; they work together). 

Read actively

You need to be engaged and attentive while reading. One way to do this is to approach reading as a conversation between you and the author. You are a participant in a dialogue. This requires you to think about and respond to what you read. 

According to Adler and Van Doren in their classic How To Read a Book (1972, p. 46), the essence of active reading is asking questions. 

  • Ask questions about the structure of the text: What is the overall, unifying message? What are the parts and how do they fit together? What problem is the author trying to solve?

  • Ask questions about the content: What are the main propositions and supporting arguments? What solutions are proposed for problems addressed by the author?

Active reading requires effort. For the efforts you make to read and think actively, you will be repaid with new insights and creative ideas...maybe not today, but eventually. Give yourself credit for your efforts. 

Active reading is a learnable skill that improves with practice. As with any valuable skill, patience and persistence pays off. 

Vary your reading speed 

By varying your reading speed, you can cover material more efficiently and with better comprehension. 

Because you have already skimmed the material, you already have a general idea of the structure and content of what you are reading. 

You have also narrowed down your topic, so you have a good idea of what you are looking for. It is not necessary to read every source thoroughly from start to finish. 

  • Scan headings to find relevant passages. 
  • Slow down to focus carefully on the passages that are most important.

Take notes

Taking notes helps you to read actively. You will use your notes later when you integrate information from sources with your ideas. 

  • Write notes that help you navigate a source. For example, put asterisks next to important headings in the table of contents.  
  • Write notes about key passages. Identify the source and page number (or web address) on each note you create. You need to give proper attribution when you reference the source in your work.
  • Record your thoughts and ideas. Be sure to distinguish them from the notes about the source.
  • Add each source to your citation management database (e.g. Zotero or EndNote). 

Numerous software programs are available to facilitate note-taking. Evernote ( and Scrivener ( are two highly-regarded examples. Scrivener includes a corkboard-and-cards view that emulates note-taking with 3 x 5 cards (a method frequently used in a very early phase of human evolution, before the advent of personal computers).  There's also Lino ( which simulates sticky notes.  All three of these programs work on Macs, and PCs, and Evernote and Lino also work on a variety of mobile devices.

Be careful not to inadvertently plagiarize or violate copyright laws. As Booth, Colomb, and Williams point out, this can easily happen if you neglect to put quotation marks around a quote when you write a note (1995, p. 77). 

Outcomes for Step 6: Study Key Sources

  • In-depth understanding of key sources as they relate to topic  

  • Notes on key passages (remember to identify where they came from!) 

  • Notes on reactions to key sources 

  • Complete bibliographic notes for sources 

NEXT: Step 7, Integrate Notes and Ideas