English 101 | Unit 5

Writing with Secondary Sources

Unit 5 | Writing with Secondary Sources

Unit 5 | Overview: Writing with Secondary Sources

Welcome to Unit 5!

Thus far, we've used primary sources to consider the different stories from our topics, and then you've tracked down some secondary sources to give an overview of your research. This is important because an effect piece of writing will accomplish a couple things:

  • It states your purpose, as in what you want people to do or believe after reading what you've written.

  • It provides an overview of key concepts so that your audiences will have a sense of your topic.

  • It provides sharp details to help fix the information in the memories of your readers.

Overview of Concepts

In the past units, our focus has been on the details — the stories, the ideas of what you want to write about. In this unit, we'll be going a step further by integrating information together to form a more coherent whole.

Something to bear in mind is that all of you already do this every day. Anytime you're having conversation someone, and you say something like "You know this thing I do? And this time I did it? And this is what it was like? And you know, I really think you should do that, too." It's not a detailed example, I know, but it shows the general pattern of how we use rhetoric: we as authors have purposes for the messages we share, and we use evidence to education and persuade our audiences.

In this unit, we're look at a couple key aspects of secondary sources:

  • Bias is a fact of life in research. It's important to address rather than simply dismiss it.

  • Wikipedia is dangerously easy to use. We'll consider how and when to use it to help your research process, and why you should almost never cite Wikipedia, encyclopedias, or dictionaries in your papers.

Unit Objectives

In Unit 4, you tracked down three secondary sources. In this unit, you'll be writing a 400-word article that describes your topic from multiple perspectives. This is where secondary sources are especially helpful — they often explain the different sides of issues, and then you use those perspectives to help illustrate how your primary sources provide useful information.

Unit 5 | Lecture: Bias in Secondary Sources

The Issue of Bias in Primary and Secondary Sources

When doing research on a topic like “I Have a Dream,” many secondary sources will begin to sound alike. As we talked about before, secondary sources come in varying degrees of quality — unfortunately, secondary sources are very much shaped by social pressures and expectations. Writers, editors, and readers will tend to believe what they already believe. All of you are likely familiar with this concept — the multiple definitions of “fake news,” for example, indicate the ways in which different sides in our political sphere can interpret the same events in very different ways.

Primary sources, likewise, will carry inherent biases. Individuals who are involved in an activity will naturally describe that activity according to their experiences with it, whether positive or negative. Documents, paperwork, and statistics may be more “reliable” as primary sources because they don’t generally change, but they are written by people. Anyone who’s ever filed an insurance claim and read the denial understands that documents can be arranged in ways to support the people or organizations that compose them.

On the page How to How to Evaluate Information Sources: Identify Bias, several tests are given for how to think about a source’s information, particularly on a webpage. You want to consider what biases, omissions, and impressions an author aims to convey before you use that source in your writing.

Why Scholarly Sources Are (Usually) Less Biased

Scholarly sources do also suffer bias to a degree — all forms of communication are subject to the purposes of those who speak and write — but scholarly sources by their very nature tend to be far less biased than primary or secondary sources. This is because of the peer review process discussed in the lecture — the reviewers who “referee” a scholarly article have a vested interest in responsible research. Generally speaking, reviewers will favor articles that are well researched and that address multiple viewpoints. I’m not saying that this is always the case, but scholarly sources are almost always more credible than primary or secondary sources.

The following video from KU Libraries gives a quick overview of what makes a source credible. Note the relationships here between credibility and our markers of scholarly sources:

Video: Evaluating Sources for Credibility

How Scholarly Sources Help You Find More Sources

Part of the reason for this is the depth of research. To write a scholarly article, a researcher (often a professor or other professional in the field) must review a great deal of outside sources, and then come up with a unifying message about what these sources tell us. When you use a scholarly source, it’s a good idea to look at which quotes the author has chosen, and then look up those sources that have been referenced. Oftentimes, the sources listed in bibliography for a scholarly source will be better than the ones that turn in a Google search. They might also be sources that aren’t currently available through Heartland library, but you could certainly e-mail one of the librarians to request access. Our library will often purchase articles for you or find other means of access to help you continue your work.

Heartland’s Library Homepage offers a Contact a Librarian link — I highly recommend it.

Unit 5 | The Right and Wrong of Wikipedia

Wikipedia: The Scourge of Knowledge!

You know what I hate? Wikipedia. Hate it. It tells me everything I want to know about everything. I read it, and I'm like "man . . . I feel smarter now than ten minutes ago . . . and also stupider."

Why does Wikipedia cause problems? Because it's an excellent source of information for a huge variety of topics. Let me emphasize: it provides excellent information, particularly if you want a quick overview about a topic. It is, perhaps, the single most important secondary source on the entire planet Earth. And I'm going to give you one two of the most important pieces of advice you should remember from English 101:

  1. NEVER CITE WIKIPEDIA IN A RESEARCH PAPER. (unless Wikipedia is your topic. That's different. Then it's a primary source.)


Number 1 there is just irritating. It indicates laziness. It's also poor research. The strength of Wikipedia is that it gives an overview of broad topics. That it also it's weakness — Wikipedia simply doesn't provide enough detail to support effective research for a college-level paper.

Number 2 is plagiarism, and I see it more often than I would like. Once or twice a year, usually. Worse, students sometimes don't realize this is wrong. Why? Because of misconceptions about secondary sources. Like I said above, Wikipedia provides good information. It's enticing. But don't fall for it. You can use Wikipedia to find better sources, but don't quote it in your paper.

How Wikipedia Can Help Your Research

  • Shows avenues worth research

  • Lists some primary and secondary sources for your topic (go to the sources - don't just trust the Wikipedia quotes.)

  • Check the Reliability of Your Sources. If I have a strange source written by a person or organization I'm unfamiliar with, I'll google the Wikipedia article on that author. Sometimes you get interesting information.

With that, here's an optional series of videos I put together on how to use Wikipedia to help my research process. Note, again, that I would not quote Wikipedia in my paper. I would only use it to find and vet my other sources that I would actually use.

Overview of Wikipedia Guide

The videos in this section are rather long, and the aren't necessarily helpful for everyone, so the videos are optional. I will not be quizzing you on any information that's just in one of these videos, but they can help reinforce some concepts and further guide your research. Although my disclaimers above are stark, Wikipedia is indeed a helpful source — I actually use it quite often my own research.

Here, I don't want you to sit through these videos and be bored. So here's a quick outline of which videos to watch for the different stages of writing you're in. Most of you are already past the stage of the first and second videos, but there still here in case you need them.

Quick Guide to the Sections and the Videos

Each section below has a video and a quick summary of key concepts. You scan through the concepts and then decide which videos (if any) will be helpful for you. Videos are optional, but you might quizzed on the concepts that summarized before each video.

  • Part 1 shows how to find a topic with Wikipedia. If you aren't sure what to write, or you have a general thing that you're interested in but you need ideas on where to go next, this is the video for you. This will likely be especially helpful when you start Project 2.

  • Part 2 is about narrowing your topic with Wikipedia. This one may likely help a number of you, especially if it feels that your current sources are somewhat unrelated to each other. You can pick a specific example from one of your current sources, find the Wikipedia article on that example, and use Wikipedia to figure out which direction to take your research.

  • Part 3 shows the limits of Wikipedia. If you find yourself using Wikipedia for all your research projects, then you should definitely watch this video. Although Wikipedia is a surprisingly reliable source, there are some things that simply have not been posted to it. Also, there can be bias in Wikipedia articles. Finally, some Wikipedia simply don't have enough information to help you.

  • Part 4 shows how to find more sources using Wikipedia. This is arguably the most useful aspect of Wikipedia in research. Basically, Wikipedia is like a crowdsourced bibliography for almost any topic you can dream of. (But only almost. If your topic is narrow enough that it doesn't have a Wikipedia page of its own, then you have done an excellent job focusing your research.)

  • Part 5 uses Wikipedia to check if sources are reliable. This may be the most important use of Wikipedia. When you're researching a topic for the first time, you might not know which sources are reliable. If you have a questionable source, then check what Wikipedia says about that author that book or that newspaper that you're using. In addition to summaries, Wikipedia also describes the shortcomings and any controversies surrounding sources.

Part 1: Wikipedia as a Starting Point in Research

In this video, I discuss some ways to use Wikipedia if you need help figuring out your topic. Most of you are already fairly confident in you Project 1 topics, but you might be unsure about focusing more. Or you might be considering a new topic for Project 2. These are places where Wikipedia can help.

Key points:

  • Never write an article from a Wikipedia page. Instead, look at the subtopics from the Wikipedia page for ideas of what to research.

  • Wikipedia is also helpful for topics you already know something about — often, Wikipedia gives a broader context than you might be familiar with.

Part 2: Wikipedia for Refining Your Research Focus

Once you have an idea, you need to narrow your topic. It helps to choose a specific example to focus on, and then go to the Wikipedia page for that exact example.

Key Points:

  • Again, do not write your work from the Wikipedia page. Only use it as a starting point to find other sources.

  • Follow the rabbit hole: look for narrower and narrower Wikipedia pages. The more focused your topic, the more focused the sources you can find.

Part 3: The Limits of Wikipedia

Wikipedia cannot do everything — it absolutely cannot do your research for you.

Key Points:

  • Not all Wikipedia pages have good sources.

  • Some Wikipedia pages are biased.

  • Many excellent research topics don't have Wikipedia pages at all.

  • Wikipedia is extremely summarized. It is an encyclopedia, and not a research paper. Your research papers need to be more detailed than a Wikipedia article.

  • Wikipedia is not always accurate. It's better than most people think, but there have been cases of Wikipedia articles that were "hijacked" by biased editors, and sometimes famous people or organizations will become Wikipedia editors in order to update their own pages. Normally, that bias is canceled out by other editors, but know that it is always possible. Again, another reason why Wikipedia should never be a source you rely on — it is only a source to help with finding a direction and tracking down other sources.

  • Teachers can often tell if a student is simply echoing a Wikipedia page. Because of its format, Wikipedia articles have a certain "sound" and structure that I'm accustomed to because I read them all them. Whenever I see a similar progression of information in a student paper, I'll google sections of the paper to see which websites come up. If a Wikipedia is the first hit on my search, I'll read through that page to make sure my student has not copied or simply "rewritten" the Wikipedia article.

Part 4: Finding Sources with Wikipedia

This is the best use for Wikipedia. It has lists of sources at the end of each article, and most articles link to other articles with still more sources.

Key Points

  • YOU MUST ACTUALLY FIND AND READ THE OUTSIDE ARTICLE. I have had students in the past try to take a quote from Wikipedia and use it as if they found it in the outside article. Please don't do this. The entire point of research is to find information you didn't previously know — to find information that most people don't know. If the information is in Wikipedia, then most people already know it, and you need to dig deeper.

  • If you cannot access the outside article, you cannot use it. Wikipedia may be accurate with quotes, but it does not provide sufficient context or analysis for you to be sure that those outside actually say what Wikipedia claims they say.

Part 5: Wikipedia for Revealing Unreliable Outside Sources

This is my favorite use for Wikipedia. It's actually kinda fun sometimes. You get to find which sources are so biased that they are terrible. Seriously — I've used a couple sources that were just awful, and I didn't realize how bad they were until I read over the Wikipedia articles. I actually had to remove a source from one of my research papers because it was that bad, and I didn't know that until I read the Wikipedia article.

Key Points

  • You don't need to check Wikipedia for all your sources. If you have a book or a newspaper article or a YouTube video from an author who's obviously reliable, then go with that source. If you don't feel like checking Wikipedia, then I wouldn't bother with it.

  • If you have doubts about a source, definitely check it. If anything at all about the source just seems "off" or "fishy," then see if its on Wikipedia. Most books and periodicals are listed with a page on Wikipedia, and controversies about those materials are also often listed.

  • If there's no Wikipedia page, then the source is likely very new or not very well known. You can still use the source, definitely — this simply means you don't have the outside verification. But say you're doing a research paper on skateboarding, and your source is a YouTuber showing how to skate. That YouTuber won't be enough of a "big name" for a Wikipedia page, but that's still likely one of the best sources available for a research paper on skateboarding.

Unit 5 | Discussion: Wikipedia and Martin Luther King

Overview: One Post, Three Responses

This is a Long Application Discussion: 1 initial post (150 words) and 3 responses (50 words each)

Since you've already discussed your plans for Article 3 in the previous unit, we're going to devote more energy today to looking at how Wikipedia works as a research tool.

Initial Post: Something Interesting about Dr. King or Civil Rights.

Start with the Wikipedia on Dr. King, or any of the other Wikipedia articles I posted below. The goal here is not to use Wikipedia for everything. Instead, I want each of to track a something that you personally find interesting about Martin Luther King. I'd like it be something that you can tie to your own personal experiences in some way. The reason for this is that I don't want everyone hopping onto to the Wikipedia page, picking the first paragraph, and using that. Instead, I want to quickly one of the Wikipedia articles about Dr. King or his family or anyone else associated with him during the Civil Rights Movement.

Steps to Follow:

  1. Scan the Wikipedia article.

  2. Follow the Wikipedia links to something you can relate to your personal life.

  3. Track down 3 sources that are not Wikipedia.

  4. Post links from those three sources in your initial post.

  5. Describe what those sources tell us.

  6. Connect them to your personal experiences.

Here are some topic examples:

  • Dr. King's childhood and experiences that led him toward the Civil Rights Movement.

  • Dr. King's family and their work to preserve his legacy, especially Coretta Scott King.

  • Rosa Parks and The Montgomery Bus Boycott organized by Dr. King.

  • Malcolm X. Although he and Dr. King didn't agree on how to protest, both were major figures in the Civil Rights Movement.

  • Lyndon B. Johnson and the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

Three Response Posts (50 words each)

In your responses, talk about what you think of the sources your classmates have found. Do you find these these sources reliable? Would you personally use them in a paper? For your responses, I want you to actually click the links and scan the sources. Here's what I'm looking for:

  • You do not need to read the sources from you classmates thoroughly. Just do a surface review.

  • Do a mini-CRAAP test. You don't need to do all the steps of CRAAP — instead, just talk about whether the article or video is reliable in your eyes.

  • Two Goods, One Bad. For every response, I want you to point out two positive things about the articles your classmate has found, and one negative thing. There's no such thing as a perfect source, and every source can tell us something about a topic. You're focus here is whether you feel the articles would help your classmate if they wrote a full paper relating Martin Luther King to their own personal experiences.

Some Google Search Examples

Here's a screenshot of what I found when I googled "Martin Luther King Wikipedia," and I've copied the text of these search results below for screen readers. Any of the articles here would perfectly fine as your starting point — you are not required to start with the one just about Martin Luther King.

Search Results

Web Result with Site Links

Martin Luther King Jr. - Wikipedia

en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Martin_Luther_King_Jr

Martin Luther King Jr was an American Christian minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from ...

Children‎: ‎Yolanda‎; ‎Martin‎; ‎Dexter‎; ‎Bernice

Born‎: ‎Michael King Jr. January 15, 1929; ‎Atlan...

Known for‎: ‎Civil rights movement‎, ‎Peace move...

Occupation‎: ‎Minister‎, activist

Loyd Jowers - Remington Model 760 - Martin Luther King Jr. - ...

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an American federal holiday ...

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was a minister and Civil Rights ...

Martin Luther King III (born October 23, 1957) is an American ...

James Earl Ray (March 10, 1928 – April 23, 1998) was an ...

Coretta Scott King (née Scott; April 27, 1927 – January 30, 2006 ...

More results from wikipedia.org »

Unit 4 | Assignment: Article 3 with Secondary Sources

Don't be alarmed if this looks long! This is a fairly in-depth explanation about both the assignment and how to write responsible research papers. I've also included a recording of the assignment, in case you prefer to listen as you read:

Purpose: In Article 3, you’ll be using secondary sources to “zoom out” from your topic, giving us more of a “bird’s eye view” of your subject. Unlike the earlier articles, this is not primarily an evaluation of your sources. Instead, use the sources to explain your topic. You will still need to say which sources you trust and why, but make sure you use that talk about your topic.

Task: Write a 400-word research article. This has three parts:

  1. Three secondary sources: Use at least three secondary sources plus at least one primary source. You can use any primary sources you like, including ones you’ve used in your prior articles. Reliable sources are best, but not always possible — if they aren’t reliable, make sure to mention any issues with these sources.

  2. A discussion of your topic: Remember: you need new details for your readers. This is not a paper about your sources. Instead, use your sources to explain your topic.

  3. Proper Citations: Follow MLA for both in-text citations and your Works Cited page.

How to Succeed: The most important part of this assignment is your use of research to explain your topic. You should look for reliable and useful information to teach us about your subject. Every topic, however, has different sides — as you research, look for multiple perspectives from your sources. Imagine that your readers have never heard of your topic before — your job is to provide new information for us, and then let us know your thoughts on this. Be sure to use proper citation so that readers can follow up on what you’ve written.

If all of that makes sense, you should be good to go! If you’d like more details, please read on!

A Look at Where We Are Now

Before we delve deeper into the Secondary Sources Article, let’s look at how it fits within the larger scope of Project 1.

So far, you’ve done the following:

  • Explored primary sources to illustrate key examples from your topic.

  • Explored multimodal primary sources to get more personal sources for your examples.

  • Gathered secondary sources to share a kind of “overview” of your topic with your classmates.

All the work you’ve done is part of the process of finding the right focus for a research paper. This is good preparation for Project 2, the research paper you’ll write later this semester. Now, unlike the Project 2 paper, your Project 1 articles are more flexible. They won’t necessarily fit together perfectly. As you’ve been doing your research, you’ve likely found that some of your new materials don’t quite overlap with your prior articles. Or you may have even found materials that contradict what you’ve written earlier. If that’s happening, it’s actually a good sign — it means that you’re doing thorough research. We don’t want research that simply confirms everything we already “know.” The whole point of research to explore a topic, learn new ideas from it, and change our preconceptions.

Continuing Onward with Article 3 (400 Words)

Elements of Good Research

Good research requires three key elements:

  1. Finding Evidence to support your facts.

  2. Using Analysis to show why your facts are important.

  3. Embracing Humility to change your views if you find evidence that shows your prior beliefs are mistaken.

In Articles 1 and 2, the emphasis was on Finding Evidence. Here, in Article 3, you’ll continue looking for evidence, but now we’re looking for more analytical evidence. You’ll still be evaluating your sources somewhat, but here the choice of sources is more important. You want to find good, solid information — and secondary sources are helpful here because they come from outside your topic. Using the new secondary sources as well as quotes from your earlier primary sources, talk about the different ideas surrounding your topic. Summarize what you’ve found, tell us which perspectives you see, and highlight any disagreements that have turned up in your research. If you have two sources saying exactly the opposite thing, talk about why they disagree.

As you do this, it’s very important to treat every perspective seriously, even those you disagree with. When you critique a source you disagree with, be professional. Use the CRAAP Test developed by Sarah Blakesley to evaluate your sources — look at the purpose behind each source and then gauge the reliability based on the following criteria:

  • Currency: is it recent?

  • Relevance: does it address your topic?

  • Authority: does the author have expertise on your topic?

  • Accuracy: is the data reliable? How do you know?

  • Purpose: what motivated the person to write this source?

Quick Pointers on Addressing Multiple Perspectives

    • You are not required to agree with every perspective. It’s best to share multiple perspectives, and then give us your personal thoughts about a topic.

    • You’re not required to “pick a side.” A research paper is not a persuasive essay. You are not required to “convince” us of anything. Instead, focus on providing the best information you can find.

  • Uncertainty is good. No one knows everything. Admitting that there are missing pieces of information helps show us the limits of your knowledge, and this supports your credibility as an honest writer.

  • Some facts are true — but not everyone agrees on what they are. The Earth is round, and yet we still have a Flat Earth Society. (Trust me: the Earth really is round.) There will be times when you cannot “agree to disagree” — unfortunately, not everyone uses reliable research methods in their daily lives.

In this article, you’ll be writing 400-words using your three Secondary Sources to give an overview of the topic and address the kinds of preconceptions you may have felt or that you may have heard from others.

Example of Multiple Perspectives: Global Warming

Here’s a quick example of the kind of writing I'm looking for. As you read this, note that I’ve introduced perspectives from climate scientists, climate change skeptics, and the military. This is not a comprehensive look at climate change, but it does indicate some of the varieties of viewpoints:

When I was younger, I didn’t know whether or not to believe in global warming. Back in college, I had seen the “hockey stick” data chart provided by the United Nations International Panel and Climate change — the chart that showed 1998 had been the warmest year on record for the past thousand years (New York Times Science News). In years since, the global temperature has continued to rise, as seen through both atmospheric and ocean temperature data (EOS: Science News by AGU), but there have been a number of documentaries that try to discredit the claims of the IPCC. The Great Climate Swindle from 2007, for example, sounds very compelling — they have interviews with a number of climate change skeptics (Open Source Systems). However, I have since learned that 97% of climate scientists believe that our planet is warming, and that the cause of this warming is likely due to human activity (NASA). For me, one of the most worrisome signs of climate change came in a U.S. Department of Defense report in 2011 — the U.S. military is already very concerned by geopolitical changes that will be caused by our warming planet and rising ocean levels (Defense Science Board Task Force). In a January 2019 report, the Department of Defense again stated that climate change is a threat to national security, writing “The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense . . . missions, operational plans, and installations” (“Report on Effects of a Changing Climate” 2).

The Place for Rhetoric in Research Writing

Notice here that I did not focus my analysis on the sources themselves. Instead, I briefly used key rhetorical concepts to illustrate why I want my readers to believe my views on global warming:

  • ethos: “97% of climate scientists . . . ” and “United Nations . . . ”

  • logos: “global temperatures have continued to rise . . . ”

  • pathos: “climate change is a threat to national security . . . ”

If I wanted, I could also look at the following:

    • purpose: Why was The Great Climate Swindle filmed? Why does NASA track global surface temperature?

    • author: Who are climate scientists? Who produced The Great Climate Swindle? Going back to purpose, how do we compare the motives and expertise of these individuals?

    • audience: Who normally reads climate science journals? Who watched The Great Climate Swindle?

    • genre: What are the conventions of a climate science article? What types of data are viewed as reliable?

  • multimodality: How do climate scientists, skeptics, and the military use different modes of communication to share information?

Here, I’d like you to note that I didn’t actually mention the rhetorical terms in the paper itself. Most writing outside English 101 or 102 won’t directly mention these rhetorical concepts. But understanding these concepts helps you better decide which articles to use in your research.

On Respectful Disagreement

This also applies to sources you disagree with. For example, there are many, many, many people who don’t believe the Earth’s climate is warming — I could have easily taken some random blog post and said “Look at this person! They wrote this random blog, and I disagree with it!” That, however, is not research — that’s bullying. Instead, I looked for a documentary that mostly passes the CRAAP test, and I chose that as the source to highlight as one I disagree with. As strongly as I may disagree with the climate skeptics, I can only be a responsible researcher if I treat their views in a responsible and respectful manner.

In your research, you must always treat contrary perspectives with respect, and this is one of the most difficult aspects of research papers. Although I encourage you to share your opinions and to critique those sources you disagree with, you often cannot show your full feelings in a college research paper. Here are examples of things you could say in tweet or a blog post or even some newspaper stories, but these types of phrases don’t belong in a research paper:

  • Don’t say “Anyone with a brain can see that . . . ”

  • Don’t say “This writer doesn’t know anything about . . . ”

  • And never write something like “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard . . . ”

Unfortunately, social media and mass media often include very strong language like this — as a result, many of us accidentally fall into the habit of using this language in our own social media posts, and I sometimes see this language in student papers. So if you do find yourself thinking “omg, these people are stupid!” as you’re writing your paper, it sometimes helps to step back a bit to make sure you critique their points using logic rather than simply emotion.

That said, you can still use emotion in academic writing — you just need to be respectful. For example, returning to climate change, here are some phrases that could find a place in an academic paper:

  • “I find it irresponsible to continue greenhouse gas emissions at the current rate.”

  • “Photos of bleached corals is heartbreaking.”

  • “The image of a lone polar bear drifting on a small patch of sea ice still haunts me. The sense of being adrift on an empty ocean, your home erased — seeing that made me wonder just how bad climate change can get. And the more I research, the more worried I become.”

Wrapping Up

After reading all this, you may be worried about whether you can do all this. Don’t worry — there’s no need to make your writing “perfect” or anything. Article 3 is designed to help you practice this kind of research writing — by thinking about issues of perspective and credibility as you write, your research writing will continue to improve over time. That improvement is what matters — not perfection.

As always, please let me know of any questions, and I’ll see you in the discussions!