13-Roles of Research Sources

Practice with BEAM

You’ve just learned about the various roles sources can play in written material. In this section you’ll gain practice identifying roles that other writers have used them for and then be asked to examine your own past work.

Activity: A Reading Exercise

Identifying BEAM’s kinds of sources in already written materials is a good way of learning how to use them in your own writing assignments. For practice, look at an abstract of and two passages from Lesy, M. (2007). Visual Literacy. Journal of American History, 94(1), 143-153.

Read the abstract and passages below and identify the most likely role (background, exhibit, argument, or method) each featured source is playing in Lesy’s article. See our take on each below:

ABSTRACT: The article reports on visual literacy and the psychological aspects of photography. The author offers his opinions on the complexities of photographs and reports on the various levels of meaning behind picture taking. Particular attention is given to the psychological aspects of photography and photographers. Additional article topics include the importance of historical photographs, the impact of the Internet and digital media on the profession, as well as the importance of preserving photographs.

Passage 1

Solving one scholarly problem – the need to sort out an image’s multiple meanings – opens a clear view of others. No matter how mundane, utilitarian, or circumscribed a photograph’s origins may be, an image is not a sentence. Images are forms of sensory data, processed by the right brain. No matter how judicious and objective a historian fancies herself, a photograph will elicit projections and associations in her, stir her imagination, before she even notices what is happening to her. A photograph “is a function, an experience, not a thing,” said Minor White, a mid-twentieth-century photographer whom Walt Whitman would have recognized as a fellow poet. “Cameras are far more impartial than their owners and employers,” White went on to say. “Projection and empathy [are] natural attributes in man…the photograph invariably functions as a mirror of at least some part of the viewer.” SOURCE CITED: Minor White, “Equivalence: The Perennial Trend,” PSA Journal, 29 July 1963), 17. 20.

Passage 2

The problem is not that there are too few images, but too many. Historical photographs exist in huge numbers, in well-ordered collections, presided over by knowledgeable curators. More and more of the collections are being digitized. Overload and saturation are only a mouse click away.

One example: in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress there are 164,000 black-and-white photographs made between 1935 and 1945 by photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information.

“America from the Great Depression to World War 11: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1955-1945,” Library of Congress: American Memory, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html

Our Answer:
The source referred to in Passage 1 is probably a background source. The author is offering White’s definition as fact. It helps support one of the author’s assertions about the nature of photographs.

The source referred to in Passage 2 is an exhibit source. The author is using the Library of Congress’s photographic archive as a self-evident example to support the claim that information overload is a potential problem.

Now you’re ready to do role identification in a term paper you’ve already written yourself. (In the future, it may be helpful to do the same as a last check on term papers you are about to turn in.)

Activity: Self-Check

Directions: Re-read your term paper. (If you’ve already gotten feedback from your professor on this paper, also look to see whether any of that feedback applies to the roles you gave your sources.)Then consider the questions below. If you can’t answer “Yes” to every question, reconsider how you have used the sources in your paper.

Do My Sources Have the Right Roles?

  • Have I used background information to, for instance, introduce a setting, situation, or problem in the paper or essay?
  • Did I cite/not cite the background information appropriately?
  • Did I avoid using journal articles that report original research for my background information?
  • Did I interpret and analyze sources as though they are exhibits or evidence in my argument?
  • Were primary sources those that played the role of exhibits and evidence?
  • Did I discuss and cite what others have written about my research question?
  • Did I include writers who both agree and disagree with what I say is my answer to the research question?
  • Did I avoid using tertiary sources to make my argument that my thesis is reasonable?
  • Did I make it clear where key terms, concepts, and manner of working that I used in my research were used first by others?
  • Were my sources for useful key terms, concepts, and manner of working secondary sources?

Where to Go From Here

Now that you have a better understanding of how sources are used in a paper, check out Academic Argument, which can help you plan and structure your term paper.

If you’re interested in further integrating sources into your paper more effectively, check out this OSU Writing Center tutorial on summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting.


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Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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