Data as Sources

Using data as sources can help with all of your research project’s information needs:

  • Learn more background information.
  • Answer your research question. The evidence that data provides can help you decide on the best answer for your question.
  • Convince your audience that your answer is correct. Data often give you evidence that your answer to your research question is correct or at least a reasonable answer.
  • Describe the situation surrounding your research question.
  • Report what others have said about your research question.

Video: Reinterpreting Little Red Riding Hood

What is data? The word means many things to many people. (Consider “data” as it relates to your phone contract, for instance!) For our purposes, a definition we like (Erway, 2013) is “units of information observed, collected, or created in the course of research.”

Data observed, collected, or created for research purposes can be numbers, text, images, audio clips, and video clips. But in this section on using data as sources, we’re going to concentrate on numerical data.

  • 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.

So using numeric data in those portions of your final product that require evidence can strengthen your argument for your answer to your research question. At other times, even if data is not necessary, numeric data can be particularly persuasive and sharpen the points you want to make in other portions of your final product devoted to, say, describing the situation surrounding your research question. See Making an Argument.

For example, for a project with the research question “How do some birds in Australia use “smart” hunting techniques to flush out prey, including starting fires?,” you might find a journal article with data about how many people have observed these techniques and estimates of how frequently the techniques are used and by how many bird species.

Obtaining Data

There are two ways of obtaining data:

  • Obtain data that already has been collected and analyzed. That’s what this section will cover.
  • Collect data yourself. This can include activities such as making observations, conducting surveys or interviews, recordings, or data by computers/machines.

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

Numeric data can be found all over the place. It can be found as part of other sources- such as books; articles in journals, newspapers, and magazines; and web pages. In these cases, the data do not stand alone as a distinct element, but instead are part of the larger work.

When searching for data in books and articles and on web pages, terms such as statistics or data may or may not be useful search terms. That’s because many writers don’t use those terms in their scholarly writing. They tend to use the words findings or results when talking about the data that could be useful to you. Also, statistics is a separate discipline, and using that term will turn up lots of journals in that area, which won’t be helpful to you. So use the search terms data and statistics with caution, especially when searching library databases. See Precision Searching for more information on searching.

Even without using those search terms, many scholarly sources you find are likely to contain data. Once you find potential sources, skim them for tables, graphs, or charts. These items are displays or illustrations of data gathered by researchers. You can use this data in your work when and only when you provide a complete citation.

If the data you find in a book, article, or web page is particularly helpful and you want more, you could contact the author to request additional numeric research data. Researchers will often discuss their data and its analysis – and sometimes provide some of it (or occasionally, all). Some may link to a larger numeric research data set. However, if a researcher shares his or her data with you, it may be in a raw form. This means that you might have to do additional analysis to make it useful in answering your question.

Depending on your research question, you may need to gather data from multiple sources to get everything you need to answer your research question and make your argument. See Making an Argument.

For instance, in our example related to food banks above, we suggested where you could find statistics about the number of people who get food from American food banks. But with that research question (“Why is there a gap in the number of people who qualify for food from food banks and the number of people who use food banks?”), you would also need to find out from another source how many people qualify for food banks based on their income and compare that number with how many people use food banks.

Finding Data, Data Depositories, and Directories

Sometimes the numeric data you need may not be in the articles, books, and websites that you’ve found. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been collected and packaged in a usable format. Governments (federal and local) and research institutions along with the United Nations and nearly every country in the world, often publish data they have collected in discipline-specific data depositories that make data available online. Here are some examples:

Other data are available through vendors who publish the data collected by researchers. Here are some examples:

Don’t know if a depository could contain data in your discipline? Check out a data directory such as the Registry of Research Data Repositories.

Data Visualization

Modern software can help you display your data in ways that are striking and often even beautiful. But the best criterion for judging whatever display you use is whether it helps you and your audience understand your data better than only text, maybe even noticing points that you would have otherwise missed.

Specific kinds of charts and graphs accomplish different things, which is important to keep in mind as you evaluate data and data sources. For instance:

  • Line charts are usually used to show trends, comparing data over time.
  • Scatter plots show the distribution of data points.
  • Bar graphs usually compare categories of data.
  • Pie charts show proportions of a whole.

It’s important to decide what you want a display to do before making your final choice. Studying your data first so you know what you have will help you make that decision. Also, it may be conventional in your discipline to display your data in certain ways. Examining the sources you were assigned to read in your course or asking your professor will help you learn what’s considered conventional.

Your professors will be examining your visual display to make sure you did not misrepresent the data. For example, the proportions of slices in a pie chart all have to add up to 100%. If yours don’t, you’ve done something wrong.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices to be made between potential displays and what each can do: Here are two sites to help you sort them out once you know your data:

If you aren’t ready yet to use some of the specialized tools for display, make it a point to learn how to use the data display capabilities in Microsoft Word and/or Excel. You can find helpful tutorials on the Web.

Proper Use of Data

Once you have your data, you can examine them and interpret them. 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. You may find yourself using special software, such as Excel, SAS, and SPSS, in such situations.

Many people may tend to look for data to prove their hypothesis or idea, as opposed to answering their research questions. 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!).

Conflicting results on the same topic are common. This is the reality of research because, after all, the questions researchers are studying are complicated. When you have conflicting results you can’t just ignore the differences—you’ll have to do your best to explain why the differences occurred.


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Critical Thinking in Academic Research Copyright © 2022 by Cindy Gruwell and Robin Ewing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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