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The professional study of political science is research intensive. In this lesson, you’ll learn about some of the important reference sources and tools that are available to political science researchers.

Overview of Political Science Research

Madeline is a political scientist that works as a professor at a state university.

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Part of her work involves pursuing political science research, which focuses on the study of the political process including the institutions and people involved in them. In other words, her research involves the study of politics at the local, state, national, or international level. She’s currently researching gun control in the United States. Let’s take a quick look at some of the sources and tools available to Madeline.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

One of the most important concepts Madeline must take into account when assessing sources in political science research is the concept of primary sources and secondary sources.

A primary source is either an original document or an account of events prepared by someone who witnessed the events. For example, the text of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution (addressing the right to bear arms) is a primary source. On the other hand, secondary sources discuss and analyze primary sources.

For example, Madeline may review several journal articles analyzing the text of the Second Amendment.

Peer-Reviewed Sources

Not all sources are created equally. Just because a book or article is published, doesn’t mean Madeline and other researchers should find the source credible. One of the best indicia of credibility for sources is whether the source has been peer-reviewed. A peer-reviewed source is one that has been reviewed by a group of recognized experts on the subject matter of the work presented for publication. The peer reviewers will review for accuracy and determine whether the work’s research methodology and conclusions meet recognized academic standards.

If the work doesn’t meet these standards, it will be rejected for publication.

Types of Research Sources

Madeline has many different types of research sources at her disposal:

  • Books can be a primary or secondary source. However, unless the focus is on historical issues or composed of relevant primary source data, books tend to go out of date rather quickly and researchers focus more on journals whose scholarship is usually more up to date.
  • General periodicals are publications that are published on a set schedule, (e.

    g., daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly). Newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times, The Economist, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, and Redbook are examples. The information in general periodicals are typically not peer-reviewed.

    They are focused more on news, current events, and areas of general interest such as fashion, entertainment, and sports rather than academic scholarship. However, some periodicals, such as national newspapers and news magazines, can quickly provide information on current events that will take scholarly sources much more time to publish on.

  • Journals are periodicals that contain scholarly articles published in specialized academic journals.

    They are generally peer-reviewed and may contain primary sources such as an article about research results from a study or secondary sources such as critiquing a research study performed by another.

  • Literature reviews collect and assess the state of scholarly research in a given area of study. They may be standalone pieces or just a component of a larger work.

    For example, Madeline may find a literature review of the current state of gun rights research. While it’s a type of secondary source, it can nevertheless be a component found in a primary source. For example, Madeline may provide a literature review on the of state gun rights research before discussing her findings based on her own study.

  • Encyclopedias are a very broad reference source. Some Encyclopedias are general in nature, while some may be focused on particular subject matters like political science, biology, or economics. However, they are of limited value to professional political science researchers like Madeline as the information is usually rudimentary. Nevertheless, encyclopedias can be useful to student and novice researchers or as a starting point for seasoned researcher who is delving into a new subject matter.

    For example, Madeline may consult an encyclopedia on firearms when researching gun rights legislation.

  • Almanacs are books that are published annually and contain statistical information and important dates for the year in question. Some may contain articles or stories of importance for the year depending on the publisher.

    A prominent example is the Farmer’s Almanac.

  • Census data is collected by the United States Census Bureau and contains a treasure trove of demographic data.
  • Surveys collect data from a large statistically representative sample of people to gather facts or opinions about the sample.

    For example, Madeline may send out a written survey to a representative sample of US citizens to ask their opinions on gun control. She may also ask for some background information (e.g., education, age, political party affiliation, income, etc.) that may help her determine if there are characteristics that make someone more likely from a statistical standpoint to support or oppose gun control.

  • Interviews are also used to collect data but the questions are posed verbally and may not be anonymous.

Research Tools

So how can Madeline find primary and secondary sources that she didn’t author herself? She’ll use a finding aid, which is a type of tool used to find research sources. In the old days, she’d have to go through card catalogs and bound indexes containing a library’s collection of books, journals, and other sources. Today, it’s much easier as most finding aids have been computerized. Most libraries will have an electronic catalog and databases of their entire collections of books, journals, periodicals, and other sources. Specialized databases also exist that focus on specific academic disciplines, such as the social sciences, law, and medicine.

These finding aids will provide key information about the source such as its title, the authors, date of publication, and where the source can be found. Some finding aids will also provide a brief abstract (i.e.

, summary) of what the source is about.You can also use online commercial search engines, but you’ll have to sort out a lot of information of questionable quality and credibility to find the gems. Some specialized search engines, such as Google Scholar, are designed for academic research.

Lesson Summary

Political science research involves using different types of research sources.

You can generally categorize research sources into primary and secondary sources. You can also divide sources into those that are peer-reviewed and those that are not. Common research sources in political science include journals articles, literature reviews, books, periodicals, encyclopedias, almanacs, census and other statistical data, surveys, and interviews.

Nowadays, research sources are found using electronic finding aids, including electronic catalogs, databases, and specialized search engines.

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