Understanding what information you need

Having a clear idea of what information you require is key to effectively researching for your assignments, as this will determine where and how you search. For some assignments you may be instructed to use particular types of information, for example “8 peer reviewed academic articles”, but in all cases you need to think carefully about your information needs.

This tutorial will help you identify what you need to find by explaining some common information needs and types. Once you have identified what you need, you can decide where to search and develop a strategy for how to search. This tutorial covers:

Information needs

As part of analysing the task requirements or brainstorming ideas about your response, also ask yourself: What information is required to build and support that response?

Consider the following example task:

What are the leading causes of youth homelessness in Australia?

To gain an understanding of the topic of youth homelessness in Australia and respond to the question, your information needs could include:

  • a definition of youth homelessness, to understand who it affects
  • statistics that describe the nature and extent of the problem
  • a historical overview to understand how youth homelessness has developed
  • research (both theoretical and reporting field work) from sociologists and other academics studying youth homelessness
  • reports from relevant government and non-government organisations (NGOs)
  • personal stories and case studies of homeless youth and social workers
  • an overview of related topics e.g. domestic violence, mental illness, that can lead to youth homelessness.

Often a single source can meet multiple information needs. A report from an NGO could include both statistical data and case studies, as well as refer to relevant academic research.

This does not mean that you should refer to as few sources as possible. For example, rather than just referring to a single relevant academic article to support a point you are making, it would be better to include several supporting articles to strengthen your stance and demonstrate deeper research.

The exact information needs you have will differ between and within tasks. At some points you may require detailed information, at other times brief information is enough, depending on where you are in the task and the focus and scope of your response.

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Background reading

Before starting your assignment research, you will usually need to do some background reading to clarify relevant concepts, define important terms, and gain an understanding of your topic. As you read, look out for references to potentially useful material for later investigation, and key words and phrases which you might want to use as search terms.

The knowledge gained from this background reading will also help you assess the results of your searches, and recognise which articles and other works will be most useful.

Refer to Where to search for advice about locating relevant resources for background reading.

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Types of information sources

Primary and secondary sources

Information can come from primary or secondary sources. Often, for a given assignment, you will need to use information from both types of sources.

Primary sources are those where the creator has collected data themselves, recorded events they have personally witnessed, or produced an original artistic work. Secondary sources reference, interpret and comment on primary sources.

In science or social science a “primary source” typically means a journal article reporting “original” research, i.e. where the researcher has performed an experiment or collected data. It can also include the data itself. In the humanities, a “primary source” more commonly refers to a source which is “firsthand” or contemporary with the time being studied.

Examples of primary sources in different fields include:
Note: this is not a comprehensive list.

Art and literature
original artworks, plays, literary works
company annual reports, historical share price data
patents, design drawings, technical standards
historical artefacts, diaries, eyewitness (e.g. news) reports
legislation, case law
Medicine / Health
medical images (e.g. x-rays), patient interviews, clinical trials, cohort studies, survey research, prospective studies
original research papers, experiment results, data sets, specimens
Social Sciences
interview transcripts, census and demographic data, survey research

Some examples of secondary sources include:

  • journal articles that review previous research in an area, but don’t present new data
  • literary criticism
  • textbooks
  • newspaper commentary, editorial and opinion pieces
  • magazine articles
  • biographies
  • encyclopedias, dictionaries
  • legal commentaries.

Sometimes a secondary source can be a primary source depending on the object of the research. For example, a researcher investigating changes in the teaching methods and content of high school science courses over the 20th century might use textbooks from the period as primary sources.


In the context of investigating, researching and reporting on the cause(s) of an aircraft accident, indicate whether each of the following is a primary or secondary source.

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Peer reviewed sources

You may be required to refer solely or mainly to peer reviewed journal articles for some assignment tasks.

Peer review operates as a quality control mechanism across academic publishing in all disciplines.

The process of peer review begins when a scholarly article is submitted to a journal for publication. The article is then evaluated by several recognised experts in that discipline. These “referees” judge whether the article makes a sufficient contribution to knowledge in the discipline, and is of a sufficient standard to justify publication. Academic book manuscripts and many conference papers are also commonly peer reviewed.

To learn more about the importance of peer review and how to locate and identify peer reviewed articles, check out the Quick guide to peer reviewed articles.

If you are unsure if an article or journal is peer reviewed, ask a librarian.

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Academic and scholarly sources

The terms academic and scholarly are synonymous. It is important that you are able to distinguish between academic sources and “popular” (non-scholarly) information sources.

Academic (or scholarly) sources are usually written by experts for others working or studying in their field. They aim to generate new knowledge, or to synthesise or summarise existing knowledge within an area of research. In contrast, “popular” sources are aimed at a more general, non-expert audience.

Quality popular sources, such as leading newspapers, quality magazines and some non-fiction popular books, can provide relevant information to support the evidence in the academic sources you use. For example, for the topic of youth homelessness, a recent investigative news article that includes interviews with homeless youth. Be guided by the advice in Evaluating information when considering the quality of an information source.

Sometimes the term “academic source” is used to mean only peer reviewed articles, but more broadly academic sources can include journal articles, conference papers, working papers, theses and some books. Have a look at the Scholarly sources checklist to find out more about academic sources, and contact your lecturer or tutor if it’s unclear what they mean by “academic sources”.

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Grey literature

For some assignments, it may be appropriate to search for sources of information other than “traditional” publications like books or journal articles. These sources are referred to as grey literature, and can include government documents, working papers, patents, professional guidelines, newsletters and a variety of other materials. Grey literature is often published directly by a relevant organisation, for example a government department, rather than a commercial publisher. For more information about these types of sources, see the Grey Literature Subject Guide.

Grey literature is not typically peer reviewed, but can still be invaluable for your research. However, you will need to pay particular attention to the suitability of these sources; if you need more guidance, see Evaluating information, ask your tutor or lecturer, or ask a librarian.

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  • When analysing an assignment task consider what information you will need to build and support your response. Check the assignment instructions for any explicit instructions regarding information sources.
  • Background reading can help you understand important terms and concepts before starting your research.
  • Information can come from primary or secondary sources. You may need to use information from both types of sources.
    • Primary sources include original research, original artistic works, and “firsthand” accounts
    • Secondary sources comment on, interpret or analyse other sources
  • Peer reviewed sources have been evaluated by expert reviewers as part of a formal quality control process before being published in a journal.
  • Academic or scholarly sources, especially those that are peer reviewed, are key information sources in academic writing. In addition to journal articles, they include conference papers, theses and some books.
  • For some assignments it may be appropriate to use grey literature, which refers to sources other than "traditional" publications like books or journal articles. It's important to evaluate the suitability of such sources carefully.

For advice on where to start looking for the information you require, see Where to search.

Refer to How to search to learn how to develop a topic into an effective database search strategy.

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