In this article I will share some ideas with you about finding and selecting sources of information to use in your doctoral research.
Where to start looking for sources of information
A suggested list of references is a valuable starting point for your research.
You should consult such references first if a list is available.
All professionally written books give recognition to sources which the writer of the book consulted.
You should be able to consult some of them.
It will not take you long to get to know which writers are recognized authorities in the field of your research.
Reading such books, articles, official documents, etc. can help you to find some good data and to learn how to discriminate between good and poor sources of information.
The same applies to internet sources.
Many academics still frown upon the use of internet sources.
I agree that much that is posted on the internet are probably not accurate and often also not valid information.
However, I do not agree that one should not use the internet to find information for research.
Many decades ago, people believed that all that was written in books, magazines and newspapers was true.
Some of you will remember how people used to defend their arguments by saying that “it was written in this or that newspaper”, or “that it is true because I heard it on the news.”
Now we know that the books, newspapers, magazines and the radio of back then often shared propaganda and lies with us, as do social media now.
A simple way in which to find sources of data on the topic of your research is to find just one or a few relevant books on the library shelves or catalogues. There are often more books with similar content on the same shelve or in the same row.
A problem with books is that they become outdated rather fast. The same can be said about articles on the internet, though.
It is a healthy practice not to use books older than five years unless you know or can determine that the contents of the book or other sources of data is still accurate and relevant.
Natural scientists will probably rely on statistics and other calculations for confirmation of accuracy. However, statistics can also be manipulated, as can laboratory tests.
Whatever sources you use, remember to give recognition to the originators.
Verifying the authenticity of sources
Regardless of which sources or kind of sources of information you consult, you need to do whatever you can to verify the authenticity, validity and accuracy of the information that you are offered.
There are many ways in which you can evaluate and confirm the value of information.
An already old, but still effective way in which to do this is triangulation.
Ironically, I came across sources that do not correctly explain what triangulation is. One such sources was written by a professor at a university.
You need to know the ontology of triangulation to understand what it means in the context of academic research.
Triangulation has its origin in the science of survey.
Many decades ago, perhaps until some fifty years ago, surveyors used directors, graphometers and later theodolites to find the coordinates for points on the ground. They would take bearings to known beacons on high points, add 180 degrees to obtain back bearings, and plot them on a map or air photo. The intersection of three such backbearings, measured from three beacons, would be the true position of the director or graphometer.
Such surveying was called triangulation because you had to use trigonometry to calculate the coordinates of the unknown point, which would be where you put the theodolite.
The rationale behind trigonometry is that the more bearings from known points you have, the more accurately can you calculate to coordinates of the unknown point.
In research we use the same argument for confirming the accuracy of information. The more sources that contain the same information, the more likely it is that the information is accurate and true.
Of course, you can have more than three sources that corroborate information, but three are generally accepted as the minimum.
Obviously, this is not a foolproof technique. It can easily happen that several writers quote the same information that they obtained from a book or article written by somebody who shared false information, or from one another.
Triangulation does not relate to source of information only.
Any kind of corroboration of the accuracy and validity of data and findings can be reinforced through triangulation.
Triangulation can refer to data, sources of information (which would include writers) researchers who come to the same findings and conclusions, theories that agree on arguments or points of view and different research methods that deliver the same or similar results.
Not all academics support triangulation as a way in which to corroborate data, findings, etc.
They too can have a point, because of differences in paradigmatic approaches.
Truth and accuracy can be dependent on context and time.
What is true now might not be true tomorrow or any other time in the past or the future.
What is true in one country or any other place will not necessarily be true in other countries or other places.
The truth as perceived by one person might not be true for somebody else.
That is why I always define information that I share in books, articles, the internet, etc. and I always respect the right of others to disagree with me.
It is a good idea to check how writers motivate and explain their arguments. Be careful of loose statements without any explanation or corroboration. Also, be careful of arguments that sound too good or bad to be true. Unlikely arguments are probably not true if they are not properly proven or supported or logically explained.
When looking for sources of information, you should start with a list of references that the university, your study leader or any other expert whom you trust suggests.
See if you can find more sources from the books or other sources on the list.
Check the accuracy, validity and authenticity of the sources by looking for corroboration of the contents of the sources. Corroboration can be found through triangulation, seeking out writers with a known good reputation, and common sense.
Also check how old the sources of information are. The older the sources are the more likely it is that the contents might be outdated and inaccurate.
Keep in mind that books, articles in magazines and newspapers and even official documentation can be just as false as internet sources.