2-Types of Sources

Data as Sources

Researchers find data (quantitative or qualitative information) to describe people, places, events, or situations, back up their claims, prove a hypothesis, or show that one is not correct. In other words, they often use data to help answer their research questions.

Here are some hypotheses that would require data to prove:

  • More women than men voted in the last presidential election in a majority of states.
  • A certain drug shows promising results in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.
  • Listening to certain genres of music lowers blood pressure.
  • People of certain religious denominations are more likely to find a specific television program objectionable.
  • The average weight of house cats in the United States has increased over the past 30 years.
  • The average square footage of supermarkets in the United States has increased in the past 20 years.
  • More tomatoes were consumed per person in the United Kingdom in 2015 than in 1962.

Researchers may find data on easily accessed webpages or buried in a database, book, or article that may or may not be on the open web.

(See Quantitative or Qualitative for some definitions and examples.)

Activity: Example of Data

Check out this very detailed data about frozen lasagna. Did you ever think this much data was available? Are there elements new to you? How might you use such data?

Movie: Reinterpreting Little Red Riding Hood


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Obtaining Data

There are two ways of obtaining data:

  • Obtain data that already exists. That’s what this section will cover.
  • Collect data yourself by making observations. This can include activities such as conducting surveys or interviews, directly recording measurements in a lab or the field, or even receiving electronic data recorded by computers/machines that gather the data. You will explore these activities in courses you take.

Data can be found all over the place. While you can, of course, use general web search engines to try to find data, there are several excellent tools for finding data on a wide range of topics. (See our Data Research Guide for information and links to those tools.)

Science Data:

Finding Data in Articles, Books, Web Pages, and More

A lot of data can be found as part of another source – including web pages, books, and journals. In other words, the data do not stand always alone as a distinct element, but rather are part of a larger work.

You could, of course, contact an author to request additional data. Researchers will discuss their data and its analysis – and sometimes provide some (or occasionally, all) of it. Some may link to a larger data set. A lot of data can be found as part of other a source – including web pages, books, and journals.  In other words, the data do not stand alone as a distinct element, but rather are part of a larger work.  Researchers will discuss their data and its analysis – and sometimes provide some (or occasionally, all) of it.  Some may link to a larger data set.  You could, of course, contact an author to request additional data.

Terms like statistics or data may or may not be useful search terms to use. Use these with caution, especially when searching library catalogs. (See information on the Library Catalog. More information on searching is at Precision Searching.)

Once you search for your topic, you may want to try skimming the items for tables, graphs, or charts. These items are summaries or illustrations of data gathered by researchers. However, sometimes data and interpretations are solely in the body of the text.

Depending on your research question, you may need to gather data from multiple resources to get everything you need. You may also find data gathered on the same topic give conflicting results. This is the reality of research. When this happens, you can’t just ignore the differences—you’ll have to do your best to explain why the differences occurred.

Activity: Where to Find Data

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Proper Use of Data

Once you have your data, you can examine them and make an interpretation. Sometimes, you can do so easily. But not always.

What if…

…you had a lot of information? Sometimes data can be very complicated and may include thousands (or millions…or billions…or more!) of data points. Suppose you only have a date and the high temperature for Columbus – but you have this for 20 years’ worth of days. Do you want to calculate the average highs for each month based upon 20 years’ worth of data by hand or even with a calculator?

…you want to be able to prove a relationship? Perhaps your theory is that social sciences students do better in a certain class than arts/humanities or science students. You may have a huge spreadsheet of data from 20 years’ worth of this course’s sections and would need to use statistical methods to see if a relationship between major and course grade exist.

You may find yourself using special software, such as Excel, SAS, and SPSS, in such situations.

Many people may have a tendency to look for data to prove their hypothesis or idea. However, you may find that the opposite happens: the data may actually disprove your hypothesis. You should never try to manipulate data so that it gives credence to your desired outcome. While it may not be the answer you wanted to find, it is the answer that exists. You may, of course, look for other sources of data – perhaps there are multiple sources of data for the same topic with differing results. Inconclusive or conflicting findings do happen and can be the answer (even if it’s not the one you wanted!).

And, like with any other information resource, you should cite any data you use from a resource. If you found the data in a book, on a web page, or in an article, cite the data like you would those formats. If you used a database or downloaded a file, the citation style’s guide/manual should have directions for how to properly cite the data. (See How to Cite Sources.)

Examples: Citing Data

Data from a research database:

  • APA: Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2008). “Crops Harvested”, Crop Production [data file]. Data Planet, (09/15/2009).
  • MLA: “Crops Harvested”, Department of Agriculture (USDA) [data file] (2008). Data Planet, (09/15/2009).

Data from a file found on the open Web:

  • APA: Center for Health Statistics, Washington State Department of Health. (2012, November). Mortality Table D1. Age-Adjusted Rates for Leading Causes of Cancer for Residents, 2002-2011. [Microsoft Excel file]. Washington State Department of Health. Retrieved from http://www.doh.wa.gov/
  • MLA: Center for Health Statistics, Washington State Department of Health. Mortality Table D1. Age-Adjusted Rates for Leading Causes of Cancer for Residents, 2002-2011. Washington State Department of Health, Nov. 2012. Microsoft Excel file. Retrieved from http://www.doh.wa.gov/