English 102

How Your Sources Answer Your Question

This handout will help you think about your sources in relation to your final research paper, and specifically how your sources will help you answer your research question. Basically, it helps you divide your sources into different categories, depending on how they contribute to an answer.

It will also help if you review Developing a Research Question, Reviewing Your Question and Sources, and the UW’s Research 101 tutorial on Topics (especially pages 3, 4 and 5).

Review your list of sources. For each source, decide how it relates to your research question:

Tip: The best papers are often ones that have few if any “direct” sources. This may seem backwards if you’re not used to doing research, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The purpose of research is to make a new contribution—answer some question or solve some problem that no one else has solved yet. If you have a bunch of sources that already answer the question, and you’re just repeating what they say, you’re not making that new contribution. On the other hand, if your sources all contribute some insight to the question, but you have to synthesize those contributions into some new and original idea, that’s a sign that you are doing something right. So don’t be alarmed if you don’t have a lot of sources that fall into the first category (“directly answers the question”).

Of course, not all papers work like this. Some papers try to answer a question that lots of people have tried to answer already, but their answer is different or they offer a new angle or a new piece of information that no one else has thought of. I’m just saying don’t assume that all or most of your sources have to be direct.

On the other hand, if most of your sources are “general/background,” that is a sign you probably need to find some new ones that are either direct or indirect but substantive.

Here is a slightly different set of questions about your sources to help you determine if and how they will be useful to you. As you can see, three of the five answers I’ve listed here (and there are others) describe sources that are indirect but substantive. For each source’s thesis, state whether it:

After reviewing your sources in this way, try to think of two possible alternatives or revisions to your research question to make it fit better with your sources. If necessary, revise your research question to give it more focus. (See Reviewing Your Question and Sources.)