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Section 2 Becoming a Researcher/Scholar / Chapter 4 Effective Research

Original documents include speeches, diaries, manuscripts, interviews, letters, official records, taped recordings, original news footage, and researcher’s video documentation.

4. Differentiating Between Forms of Academic Literature


Primary Sources

The interpretation of the term primary source is dependent upon the field of study. However, the most common definition pertains to the originality of the material. It is an original or seminal source, artifact, or evidence that has not been changed in any shape or form. These sources offer a first-hand account of an experiment, event, and/or experience related to a particular moment in time. Original documents include speeches, diaries, manuscripts, interviews, letters, official records, taped recordings, original news footage, and researcher’s video documentation. Autobiographies and memoirs are also considered primary resources although the content material is documented after the original events took place. Empirical research is one of the main sources doctoral learners and scholars will use to support their work. Its data is gathered through observation, experimentation, and testing. It is vital to a doctoral learner's development to frequently read and use this type of primary source. Empirical research is normally published in journal articles and/or periodicals, but other types of research can be found, such as reviews and reports. Journal articles can occupy both primary and secondary source identification depending on the discipline and source of knowledge. Primary sources are cited and referenced by secondary sources for a variety of reasons and motivations, but mainly to support, criticize, comment, investigate, build, and/or expand on a subject.


Secondary Sources

A secondary source refers to written or recorded material that interprets, analyzes, or evaluates primary sources in a way that suggests the written narrative is one or more steps removed from the original material. Some examples include journal articles, research studies, essays, reviews, presentations, magazine articles, books, textbooks, and book reviews.


Ideally, doctoral learners will have access to primary resources, but depending on the study’s focus and methodology, secondary sources can play a dominant role in learners' understanding of their field, especially when it comes to constructing a comprehensive literature review section for a prospectus, and, eventually, a dissertation.


Tertiary Sources

These sources generally are summaries or condensed versions of primary and secondary sources. Often, these sources are related to reference materials, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, reference guides, and indexes.


Examples of Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Doctoral learners will include at least one seminal work in their literature reviews to demonstrate their understanding of the field or to use as a theoretical foundation for their own research.

Empirical research is the foundation to experiments and the scientific method, although empirical data can be attained and measured through quantitative and qualitative methods.

Abstracts are an important tool used by doctoral learners and seasoned researchers to quickly ascertain an article’s relevance.

Dissertations are an ideal source for doctoral learners because many dissertations may contain relatively recent research that has not been published as a book or journal article.

Seminal Works

Seminal works are papers recognized by the research community as important landmarks and major breakthroughs in scholarship. These papers promote a new theory that becomes an acceptable and valid perspective that all future scholars must read and incorporate into their understanding of the field in order to conduct informed research projects. Doctoral learners will include at least one seminal work in their literature reviews to demonstrate their understanding of the field or to use as a theoretical foundation for their own research. This is required to establish the conceptual framework of a dissertation. For example, a doctoral study investigating a hypothesis related to transformational leadership must identify the origin of the term, established by James Burns (1978), but then elect to use a more developed theory from Bernard Bass (1985) to establish his or her research study’s theoretical foundation.


Although, an author of a seminal work will usually produce several publications around a particular topic, the original seminal paper is separate from the author’s other publications because it originally established the idea that will inform all future research activity.

The model begins with a new theory published in a research paper. If the scholarly community comes to accept the validity of the new theory, this paper is considered a seminal paper. This seminal paper influences the scholarly community’s thinking and ultimately, the body of knowledge. The seminal paper stimulates the writing of other scholarly papers. Last, the novel thinking, expressed in the seminal paper and subsequent scholarly papers, is organized into new patterns of thinking which can be recorded in subject heading schemes and then applied to the subject indexing of newly published scholarly papers (Lussky, 2004, p. 4-5).


Doctoral learners will discover many authors’ names repeated over and over in scholars’ bibliographies, but it is important to note that there is a difference between a seminal author and researchers who publish frequently. These researchers are recognized as experts, but not the author of a seminal work. Doctoral learners must learn to differentiate between the two. For example, Bass’s (1985) seminal text, Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations is considered a seminal work on transformational leadership. Doctoral learners often cite Peter Northouse because of his popularity and visibility; however, his prolific contributions to the field of leadership are not seminal in nature. Determining which works are seminal is not as difficult as it sounds because, often, these same experts will cite the seminal paper and refer to it is as influential, important, classic, or seminal in their own research articles.


Empirical Research Articles

 Empirical research is the observable study of a phenomena and/or event. Researchers gain knowledge by means of direct and indirect observations based upon the five senses, as opposed to deriving conclusions from theory, belief, and/or ideology. Empirical research is the foundation to experiments and the scientific method, although empirical data can be attained and measured through quantitative and qualitative methods. A researcher’s relationship with the data collection and analysis of the data is primary. The work does not come from the collective assessment of others’ research, but rather the direct observation and analysis of a researcher’s pursuit to answer a hypothesis or research question.


 Here is an example of an empirical research study: A researcher wants to test her hypothesis concerning whether or not children are prejudiced against fat-free labels on their choices of ice cream. The researcher sends a survey to a sample population consisting of fourth and sixth graders at three elementary schools in a Midwestern state. The surveys are filled out and sent back. The data is collected and analyzed by the researcher. The researcher publishes her findings in a peer reviewed journal. As you can see, the relationship between the data and the researcher is primary.


 Here is an example of nonempirical research. A researcher reads 25 articles on transformational leadership techniques used in public high schools. From her reading, the researcher comes to the conclusion, through statistical methods of contrasting and combining results, that school districts were resistant to the introduction of transformational leadership techniques with students, but were receptive to the technique with staff members. The researcher writes a paper discussing these findings and publishes it in a peer-reviewed journal; however, there is no hypothesis and sample population present in the research.


 Empirical research articles, also known as primary research articles, report the results of a researcher’s findings using a set of commonly used sections. Most empirical research articles consist of these sections:


• Abstract,


• Introduction,


• Hypothesis or Research Question,


• Literature Review,


• Methodology (sample population, approach, and measurement tools),


• Discussion,


• Conclusion, and


• References.


 Researchers may vary the language they use to identify these sections or elect to combine two sections together under a single heading. For example, the Introduction and Literature Review sections are often merged together. Regardless of the headings used, these sections are always present in an empirical article in some form or fashion.



A periodical is a written work that is published on a regular basis. The quality of periodicals will vary depending on the materials, type, and subject matter. The most common types of periodicals are newspapers, magazines, newsletters, yearbooks, trade journals, and scholarly/academic journals. Doctoral learners must recognize the difference between scholarly/academic, professional trade, and popular publications.


Newspapers and Magazines

These popular periodicals' intended audiences is the general public and they do not rely on rigorous academic research to support their news stories, editorials, and interviews. The authors are professional writers who may or may not be experts on the subject material, and the publications are supported by advertisements. The vocabulary is usually very accessible for large consumption and comprehension. While there are times doctoral learners may use these resources to help describe a social, political, or cultural condition of a particular time period, mainly, they should be supplemental in nature and should not be used as a foundation piece to research because they usually lack quality documentation and consist of minimal analysis.


Professional Magazine and Journals

Many scholars become members of professional organizations to continue their professional development in their respected fields. Most professional organizations publish a magazine or newsletter to inform members of trends in scholarship, current events, resources, and professional development opportunities. These publications are subject-specific, but the tone of writing will vary depending on the editor’s mission. There are many opportunities for scholars and practitioners to network with others and gain recognition through published contributions. Doctoral learners will find value in these readings on a professional level but should not rely heavily on such publications for their main source of scholarship.


Peer-Reviewed Articles

Peer-reviewed articles probably will be the most popular reading material for doctoral learners throughout their program of study. These articles are found within scholarly periodicals, called journals, and are authored by scholars, researchers, and specialists. The content is based upon original research written with an academic voice that demonstrates a specialized understanding of the field’s vocabulary and past scholarship. Generally, articles are arranged in a similar format that will provide readers with recognizable sections: abstract, introduction, literature review, research questions, methods section, limitations, results, conclusion, and references.


Before publication, these articles are reviewed by a number of scholars to help ensure the quality of research. The reviewers do not know the names of the authors in order to reduce the possibility of influence and bias (McKinley, 2008). Although most research has limitations of some form, these experts are checking for validity or research methodology, reasonable conclusions, and sound arguments. Many articles are sent back to writers for revisions, or if an article is lacking in major areas, such as validity or rigor, it will be rejected. If the research will meet the expectations of a scholarly article, it likely will be published in a journal.



 All published research articles will have an abstract at the beginning of the document to communicate to readers a summary of the research paper or project. Generally, it is a synopsis ranging between 150-250 words that briefly disclose the researcher’s rationale, methodology, results, and implications for future studies. An effective abstract will be clear and concise with an accurate report of the research without evaluative commentary (American Psychological Association [APA], 2010, p. 26). It is usually the first thing a researcher will find and read in the search process. Abstracts are an important tool used by doctoral learners and seasoned researchers to quickly ascertain an article’s relevance. “Readers frequently decide on the basis of the abstract whether to read the entire article” (APA, 2010, p. 26). It will save learners valuable time and help them better understand the scope of their subject area. Many databases only index abstracts, instead of full-text documents, which means the researchers will have to find or request the full-text version from their institution’s library. It is recommended that learners cite from the full-text document, as opposed to citing from an abstract because it implies the researcher has not read the actual article. All doctoral learners will be required to author an abstract for their dissertation.



Doctoral learners should have a stack of books on their desk at all times with a notebook containing detailed notes or a set of post-it notes stuck to pages with ideas written on them, reminding them where to find useful content. They should also have a list of eBooks on their computers with a number of bookmarks set to important pages for future reference. Some books are written by authors who have written a seminal work, and this format is a way for them to expand upon their research. Other books are edited collections from various scholars contributing theoretical and practical applications on a particular subject. Both are valuable and can provide great insight for doctoral learners to build their body of knowledge.


It is important for doctoral learners to read as much as possible on their subject, and books provide a more in-depth perspective that will give them more access to necessary background information and contextual understanding. However, depending on the field of study, books should be used sparingly in the literature review of the dissertation as citing assumes the learner has read the entire book. Unfortunately, it may be impossible to read everything on the physical and virtual bookshelves; however, learners can use the Table of Contents, Index, and Bibliography as tools. This process is similar to reading the abstracts or a peer-reviewed article and dissertation in order to discover quickly whether sections of the text will be applicable to the research project at hand. In APA, these sections should be cited appropriately by identifying the individual chapter or section actually used.



At the doctoral level, textbooks are a rarity compared with undergraduate or master’s programs because instructors require learners to read directly from scholars’ published works, as opposed to spending time reading basic information and summations (exceptions may occur in the field of health care). Textbooks do contain extensive bibliographic information that can be applied to exploratory stages of research; however, doctoral learners should not cite textbook material in their research; they should visit, read, and cite from the original referenced texts.



The end product of a doctoral program is the dissertation. It is a long narrative that demonstrates a doctoral learner’s expertise on a particular aspect of a topic through the documentation of a scholarly research project resulting in new contributions to a field of study. Dissertations are an ideal source for doctoral learners because many dissertations may contain relatively recent research that has not been published as a book or journal article. However, dissertations should be used sparingly because they are not subject to the same peer-reviewed process as research studies published in journals. At GCU, it is recommended that no more than five dissertations can be cited to support a learner’s doctoral research. The real value comes from learners having the opportunity to read another scholar’s work and develop metacognitive connections that can help demonstrate what is expected when it comes time to write their own project. Most dissertations follow a particular format that can serve as a blueprint or map when learners are looking for information quickly.


 Reference Lists

A reference list identifies the work cited in an author’s text. Besides its pragmatic application, learners can follow the cited material to its original source. It is recommended that learners use an original source whenever possible because it ensures the context and intention of the cited work is accurate. It also demonstrates an individual’s ability to conduct an effective research project.



A bibliography is a list of sources that an individual has consulted throughout the research project, but not necessarily cited in his or her narrative work. A major work, such as a dissertation, will include a reference page and bibliography. Learners should use a bibliography whenever it is available to construct a comprehensive list of resources.


 Annotated Bibliographies

An annotated bibliography expands upon a traditional bibliography by including a brief description for each reference. Learners evaluate each source and summarize the main points found within the reading, as well as determine its relevance and quality. This is an effective practice for learners conducting an extensive literature review over a substantial amount of time. Often, learners may forget the main points of an article they read a year earlier, but an annotated bibliography helps them figure out whether or not the material is relevant. Also, writing annotations forces learners to develop their critical acumen and become an authority on the subject material at the same time.