Skip to Main Content

POLS 205: Citizen Participation and Public Policy: Getting Started - Research basics

This is a guide to resources which support the study of public policy making in the American political system. See also the Political Science Generally guide.

Thinking about information

Once you have an interest in a topic, it is important to consider carefully the sources of information that you are consulting and how they fit into the larger information ecosystem.  This is a quick look at that ecosystem.

The information cycle

As events happen, information is generated.  Understanding the ways information is associated with events helps to know where to look and what kinds of content you will find. For example:


Immediate information includes internet (social media) and real time reporting on TV and radio. Information from these sources is very current, even eyewitness, but not very thoughtful.  These accounts are called 'primary sources.'  Common examples: Twitter, Facebook, broadcast news, etc.


Next day or week: A newspaper account will come out in the day or two following the event, and will be more organized and slightly more complete, with a certain degree of context. A weekly magazine might contain even more background and is probably more reliable.  Examples: New York Times, Time Magazine, The Economist.


Within a year or two: Journals and books will publish accounts of the event and will have the benefit of time and research to add even more context, understanding, analysis and reliability to the events. Examples: Scholarly journal articles and popular books.


Two to three years: Scholarly books generally take a few years to go through the research, writing, editing and publishing process, but are very complete, contextual and, often, reliable.


Five or more years: At a certain point, encyclopedias and reference books will contain the 'accepted' historical analysis of events, though we understand that "history" can be subject to "revision."


(See also "Evaluating information")

Scholarly content vs. Popular content

An important distinction defines the kinds of information available in libraries and online, especially in the academic environment. Your professors at the university level will want you to conduct research using "scholarly" content.  But even in your everyday use of information, it is important to note these differences.  Here are some clues:


  • Authors are experts (look into their backgrounds, where they went to school, what they studied, who they work for)
  • Articles are reviewed by other experts and considered to add knowledge to the field (scholarship is a conversation)
  • Audience is assumed to know something about the subject
  • Sources for facts and ideas are cited 
  • Publications or sites are noncommercial - there is little or no advertising


  • Authors are professional writers, but not necessarily subject experts, and may have no academic  background in the area at all
  • Articles are meant to sell magazines or attract eyeballs to a website
  • Audience is the general public, and there is no assumption of prior knowledge
  • Articles do not contain citations or references
  • Lots advertising (commercial and profitmaking)

Evaluating information

Thinking critically about the information you are using is essential to high quality research.  A few things to consider: 

  • Is the information current?  When was it written/published?
  • Is the information authoritative?  Who is the author and what is their background and education?
  • Is the information accurate? Are there notes and references giving the sources of the data?
  • Is the information objective?  Is it partisan?  If the publisher is an agency or organization, do you know who they are and what their goals and interests are? 
  • Is the information relevant?  Does it answer the question you have?


Your Librarian

Profile Photo
Andrea Koeppe
she / her / hers

I am available for research questions and consultations via email and Zoom
Charles J. Keffer Library | MOH 223