25 Sources and Information Needs

Source and Information Needs

This section and the section on Types of Sources work together. That’s because knowing the kinds of information in each category of sources will help you choose the right kind of information to meet each of your information needs. And some of those needs are very particular.

Information needs are why you need sources. Meeting those needs is what you’re going to do with sources as you complete your research project.

Here are those needs:

  • To learn more background information.
  • To answer your research question(s).
  • To convince your audience that your answer is correct or, at least, the most reasonable answer.
  • To describe the situation surrounding your research question for your audience and explain why it’s important.
  • To report what others have said about your question, including any different answers to your research question.


For another way to think about the work your sources do, see Roles of Research Sources.

The verbs in the list of information needs above tell you exactly how you’ll use sources to carry out your research and create your final product: to learn, answer, convince, describe, and report. But you won’t be doing any of that alone.

Your sources will give you information with which to reason. They’ll also give you direct quotes and information to summarize and paraphrase as you create your final product. In other words, your sources will support you every step of the way during your research project.


Needs and Final Products

Background information may seldom appear directly in any final product. But meeting each of the other information needs will result in written sections of a term paper. For final products other than term papers, you’ll have the same needs and will use sources to meet them. But not all needs will result in a section of your final product.

Posters & Information Needs

On a poster about your own original research, describe the situation surrounding your research question and why the question is important. That same lack of space may mean you do not report what others have said about your question. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t meet those needs and others as you carried out your research—unlike a term paper or journal article, the poster format in which you reported it just had more limited space.

For instance, in order to justify doing the research to yourself and your professor, you probably started by meeting the information need to describe the situation and why it is important. Your instructor may have you turn in that justification. And in order to do research based on what has already been found out, you will have studied what others have already reported. You also had to do that in order to make your answer to your research question more believable. But that doesn’t mean you had room on your poster to say you met those needs.


This table, created from the ideas developed by Joseph Bizup, describes the roles that sources can play (some of the ways they can be used) in your finished assignment, such as a term paper. Bizup called his model BEAM, an acronym that stands for background, exhibits (or evidence), argument, and method.

Role for Sources How to
Use Them
Kinds of Sources
That Can Have That Role*
Background** Writers rely on these sources for general factual information. For instance, a writer could use background information to introduce a setting, situation, or problem in the term paper. Usually secondary sources and tertiary sources, but, basically, just anything other than journal articles that report original research. Some examples: literature review articles, non-fiction books, and biographies (secondary) and field guides and Wikipedia (tertiary).
Exhibits or Evidence Writers interpret and analyze sources like these in the same way they are used as exhibits and evidence in a museum or a court. Usually primary sources. Some examples: newspaper articles from the time in question, works of literature or art, and research articles.
Argument Writers engage with these sources that they agree with or disagree with. The sources are usually written by scholars in their field. For instance, writers often include sources that describe earlier work that is specifically relevant to their own research question and their thesis (what they consider to be the answer to that question.) Usually primary and secondary sources. Some examples of primary sources: research articles in the sciences and humanities and recordings of performances in the arts. Some examples of secondary sources: commentaries and criticisms, such as those that appear in literature reviews, textbooks, and blogs that comment on research.
Method or Theory Writers follow the key terms, concepts, or manner of working that are explained in these sources. That is, they pay attention to and use the relevant work of others before them to carry out their own work and then describe it in the term paper. Often secondary sources. Some examples: literature reviews, textbooks, and blogs that comment on research.

*See Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources
**See Background Reading

TIP: BEAM at a Glance

Download this BEAM Reference Chart to help you quickly determine how you might find or use a source.

Using sources to function in these roles is how you enter into the scholarly conversation with all the other research and writing that has covered your topic before.

In the next few pages, you’ll learn more about each role by analyzing how sources are used in the pop culture essay cited in the Example below. Seeing how the essay’s author puts his sources to work in their various roles should help you envision how you can do the same in your own papers. The essay discusses how pop culture affects American (and global) values.

Example: Manufacturing Taste

Click on the citation below to skim through the essay. When you are finished, come back to this page and begin the next section on background sources.

Booker, M. Keith. “Manufacturing Taste: The Culture Industry, Children’s Culture, and the Globalization of American Values.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 19 June 2012.


BEAM: Background Sources

These are sources that should be noncontroversial—the author accepts information from these sources as being authoritative (and expects readers to, as well). In other words, the sources (and the information gleaned from them) are generally trusted or undisputed. That information can serve as the incontestable foundation for your claims.

Background information is common knowledge (e.g. the sky is blue) and not necessary to be cited.

It’s recommended that you cite background sources when you’re unsure, but one rule of thumb suggests finding the same undocumented information in at least 5 other credible sources. It can be difficult to make this determination, so it’s always a good idea to consult your professor.

Let’s look at a statement in the first paragraph of the pop culture essay:

Thus, the corporate giants of the American Culture Industry (themselves now mostly multinational conglomerates) clearly must pay attention to the demands of audiences around the world in formulating, producing, and promoting the specific films, television, music, and other artifacts that are the stuff of popular culture.

How do you know that the “corporate giants are mostly multinational conglomerates” as stated in the first sentence? Or that the items listed are indeed the stuff of popular culture? These are examples of common knowledge.

Looking a little deeper…

Without context, this paragraph could also be the conclusion of a paper about what corporations should do (demonstrating the ongoing nature of knowledge itself). But the paper is not about making recommendations to the American Cultural Industry. This is an assertion that the author uses to help set up his different argument and is meant to be taken at face-value. So it’s an example of how the same source can play different roles in different written assignments—all depending on how writers use them.

There is more about background sources at Getting Background Reading.

Activity: Background Sources

Which of the following would be the best example of a background source that doesn’t need to be cited, according to the BEAM framework?

There were a total of 39 delegates who signed the U.S. Constitution; William Jackson was the 40th, but served as secretary and did not represent a state.

Thought to be limited to bat populations, the fungi responsible for the fast-spreading disease known as White-nose syndrome has been linked with similar infections affecting amphibians.

Having published over 300 reports since 2000, the Pew Internet & American Life Project has been a trusted source for research into online behavior.”

Our Answer: There were a total of 39 delegates who signed the U.S. Constitution; William Jackson was the 40th, but served as secretary and did not represent a state.


BEAM: Exhibit and Evidence Sources

Generally, exhibit and evidence sources are works of literature (or other media), collected data, or some observed phenomenon, etc. that you have been asked to write about. They are what you analyze or interpret.

Looking again at the pop culture essay, the exhibits being examined are pop culture and American (as well as global) values. Specifically, the essay is examining the relationship between the two:

On the other hand, the international success of Toy Story 3, a film that deals with anthropomorphized toys and is thus essentially a consumerist fantasy of commodities come to life, also suggests that global distribution of the products of the American Culture Industry is beginning to have an impact on the tastes and values of audiences even outside the United States.

Exhibit sources are not limited to examples in the humanities; they could also be data that was collected in a scientific experiment or by a website’s user survey. They can also simply serve as examples that help support a claim.


BEAM: Argument Sources

Argument sources provide you with the other voices in the academic conversation about your topic. Who else has done similar research, and how should your paper respond to what they’ve said? Does your paper refine or extend an existing hypothesis someone else has tested? If so, those sources belong in your paper.

Sometimes the purpose of including an argument source is to disagree with it and definitively indicate a different direction.

From our pop culture essay example:

Althusser’s work remains compelling, despite the fact that theorists such as Michel de Certeau and John Fiske have argued that individuals actually have a considerable ability to resist and oppose the messages conveyed to them by official ideology, in popular culture and elsewhere.

The author is taking part and taking a stand in the ongoing scholarly discussion of culture, although this endorsement of Althusser’s work could possibly be considered a method source if the argument in the article went in a different direction.

Activity: Argument Sources

Which of the follow best defines an argument source in the BEAM framework?

  • It’s one piece of research or scholarship that your paper is directly responding to.
  • It’s one of many voices in a larger conversation that your research paper participates in.
  • It’s one of several articles whose authors disagree with the premises of your paper.

Our Answer: It’s one of many voices in a larger conversation that your research paper participates in.


BEAM: Method Sources

While argument sources help you frame your paper within the larger scholarly discussion about your topic and exhibits provide a focal point, method sources help provide underlying and sometimes implicit assumptions for your argument or analysis.

For some research, these are literally the methods you use to collect data like a focus group or a particular statistical analysis, and they provide justification for them. In other research, your paper might reveal a leaning toward a major attitude or school of thought within a discipline.

As a persuasive piece of writing, the essay has this intrinsic thread of caution and warning that is summed up in its conclusion:

“The children’s film industry might not be quite as sinister as the tobacco industry, with its efforts to addict children to cigarettes. […] Meanwhile, the lives of those audiences are now being increasingly saturated by popular culture, making it more and more difficult for individuals to form attitudes, opinions, and values that are independent of the messages promulgated by the Culture Industry.”

While this is a subtle example, you would generally cite or at least credit your methods and theories that frame your analysis in your bibliography.


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Writing and Rhetoric by Heather Hopkins Bowers; Anthony Ruggiero; and Jason Saphara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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