How to Use Sources More Critically


Students using research studies often are unaware of how to apply critical attention to details. Yet some details of even the most complicated sources are within even the beginning research writer’s ability to analyze. How to Use Sources More Critically shows how you can and should question source data with enough depth to note weaknesses, debatable issues, and limitations, often brought up by the source’s authors themselves.


Students often struggle to write good research papers. Many, in my experience, tend to default to a weak model, which I sometimes refer to as an “information dump,” or a “source dump.” In such cases, the students’ analytical abilities and skills as a writer are being wasted, measured solely by how clearly someone else’s words and ideas are listed, uncritically.

To try to counter this tendency, I have a saying – that the student’s role is to “research the research.” If this advice is followed, then the student finds an opportunity play a more active role in the paper, exploring weaknesses, debatable and controversial issues, and limitations of study results. As stated above, these aspects of research can be discovered by even beginning student writers, once they understand how to apply critical common sense.

In these two examples, we’ll be looking at a study called, “Outcomes of Care in Birth Centers: Demonstration of a Durable Model” (Stapleton, Osborne, & Illuzi, 2013) [Note: APA style in-text citation].

  • Scholarly articles that are experiments, meta-analyses, and other types of studies will include a Methods section. We should look at the Methods carefully, asking ourselves: “How good is the method? How good is the data?” In our example, Stapleton, Osborne and Illuzi state:

“Participation in the registry is voluntary, and 78% of AABC-member birth centers contribute to the registry. Forty one percent of all US birth centers known to the AABC are members” (p. 4).

From this statement, our critical common sense tells us to be cautious. Given the fact that participation in the registry is voluntary, that only 41% of *known* birth centers participate, and that only 78% of that 41% actually contribute to the registry (a little quick math,  41 * .78,  gives that participation as roughly 32% of birth centers) we can discover, on our own, a limitation of the results: a lot of missing and possibly incorrect data. 

  • Studies will also include a Discussion section, in which the authors will likely discuss strengths, weakness, and potential limitations of their own work. For example, our study authors write,

“Review of the indications for emergency intrapartum transfer showed that some did not appear to be actual medical emergencies. For example, 24 women were transferred emergently for arrest of labor, which is unlikely to be a true medical emergency. Consequently, the incidence of actual medical emergencies requiring transfer is likely to have been lower than reported here” (p. 9).

Again, these limitations are important to acknowledge in the research paper and can lead you to discuss the complications of determining how safe birthing centers are, rather than making a conclusion solely on the source’s data and conclusions, unexamined. This ability to find complications allows you to discuss debatable and controversial issues, making your research paper more purposeful and less of a “source dump” with little contribution by you, the research writer.


  • By applying critical and careful commonsense examination of sources, you will be able to more responsibly and deeply analyze data for strengths, weaknesses and limitations.
  • Conclusions become more debatable, less certain, more valid, and less likely to be based on blind acceptance of sources. Real-world answers are shown to be more complex, interesting and important.
  • Your research papers will likely demonstrate greater understanding of how primary and secondary sources use data.
  • You get to perform your own deeper analysis, which is more satisfying to you as well as to the reader.
  • Your research papers become stronger and more professional.


Stapleton, S. R., Osborne, C. and Illuzzi, J. (2013), Outcomes of Care in Birth Centers: Demonstration of a Durable Model. Journal of Midwifery & Women s Health, 58: 3-14. doi:10.1111/jmwh.12003

If you enjoyed How to Use Sources More Critically, you might also enjoy my lesson, “Quick Thoughts About Writing Good Introductions.”

For several decades I have conducted writing workshops of all kinds, and for 14 years I have taught writing on the faculty of Indiana University Southeast. Now I have decided to give back for these opportunities by making my lessons available online. I hope you enjoy this lesson, and the other lessons here on my writing Web site, You may download and use any lesson here free of charge, provided you give credit as: © Copyright Michael Jackman. All Rights Reserved.

Although the lessons are free of charge, please help support all my work in writing and maintaining this site through a small contribution using the PayPal link on the top right of this post. Thank you for your support! – Michael

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