How to read with purpose: What sources to use to get better grades

In the last two blog posts, I've talked about the fundamental importance of reading and research during your University degree, a topic that 28% of students in my recent survey said was a major problem for them.

I've covered:

Although what I'm going to tell you today is valuable and useful, you'll get more out of it if you read the previous articles, so take a few minutes to click on the links above or bookmark them for later!

Right, let's first lay the foundations of WHAT to read and then I'll dive into all the juicy detail. 

The foundations

The foundation of WHAT to read is that all the sources you read, quote and cite in your work, must be credible and reliable.

Using credible sources to gather information is essential. Your reading will provide most of the ideas and points you make in your essay:

Quality Input = Quality Output!

Quality, in this case, means content from a credible academic source or reliable source in the wider public domain.

WHAT-sources-to-read-to-get-better -grades

Maybe you're thinking 'Huh? Credible and reliable? Aren’t all sources of information equal?'

Well, not exactly. Choosing good quality sources will gain you higher marks in essays, reports, dissertations and other assignments.

There are several factors to consider when looking for good quality sources in the academic and wider public domain.

I created an acronym to help me remember what to look for: USEABLE*

  • Unbiased - is objective and not prejudiced
  • Scientific - uses objective, investigative methods
  • Exact - is rigourous and explicit
  • Accurate - is factual and correct
  • Balanced - is fair and impartial
  • Logical -  based on clear reasoning and argument
  • Evaluated - has been reviewed by the academic community

I find it useful to have these points written in my bullet journal or on a post-it note when I'm searching for information to read for an essay or assignment; it reminds me that I'm looking for QUALITY, not just quantity! Feel free to swipe the idea and use it to help you!

Academic sources will make up the bulk of the material you need to read at University and form the majority of your essay and assignment references. So, let's cover specifically WHAT academic sources of material you should use. 

Academic sources

Academia is based upon scientific knowledge. Everything we know about a particular subject is developed through constructing theories and models of how the world works, and then testing them in scientific conditions.

Over years, decades and in some cases centuries, academics contribute to this body of knowledge one academic study or experiment at a time. Gradually, the knowledge of a particular subject grows.

It’s like completing a jigsaw puzzle piece by piece to the best of our ability, without quite knowing what the final picture on the box looks like.

Your job as a student is to study what is already known on a subject.

You do this by reading what other academics have previously discovered. This is often referred to as ‘the literature’ on a subject. 

You’re going to hear a lot about ‘the literature’ during your time at University so it’s worth restating that again:

‘The literature’ is the collection of books and articles that tell the story of what has been discovered in the particular field of knowledge that you’re studying.

 Picture courtesy of

Picture courtesy of

By reading what has already been published before, you will develop your knowledge of a subject and demonstrate to your tutor that what you argue – in class and on paper – is based on previous credible research.

Your starting point is: if you want your work to make you look like an expert, choose sources written by experts!




Are you ready to stand on the shoulders of giants?

Isaac Newton famously used this phrase in 1676: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." He was referring to how his own research was an extension of the research done by earlier scholars.

You too can stand on the shoulders of giants, by studying the two main sources you’ll need during your degree – books and journal articles. 

Let’s start with books.

You’ll encounter two broad types of academic books. Those that are:

  1. Unitary - written by one author or a small number of authors; these books form one cohesive unit on a topic. 
  2. Collection - chapters written by different experts in the field. These books will have editors listed on the front instead of authors.

Either can be helpful. Okay, so if you want to find the most credible and reliable books, where should you start?

Well, honestly, if it’s in your University library or campus bookshop that’s a good start. You will probably have a couple of main textbooks for your course listed on your module reading list too. I highly recommend you use these main course textbooks as the basis of your reading to prepare for lectures and tutorials or to gain a general understanding of a topic.

You don't need to read these main textbooks cover to cover. Use them as a reference to look up and understand the main concepts and get an overview, in the same way you'd look up a word in a dictionary.

It's also worth mentioning that tutors will often add two main textbooks to a reading list, either because:

  • each book has a slightly different perspective or strength, or
  • to  avoid students waiting to get a particular book out of the library


The point being - you may not need to read both books!

If you want to move beyond the reading list for material for an essay or your dissertation, (and you will need to move beyond the reading list to gain higher marks) then look for books published by a major academic publisher such as Elsevier, Palgrave McMillan, or Springer Science and Business Media. This shows the book is written from an academic perspective, rather than a book aimed at practitioners or a general public audience.

Next, check the date. You’ll want to choose the most recent publications or the latest edition of a well-established textbook. Don't worry too much though if you can only get hold of the previous edition because it will still contain most of the material that you need.

Textbooks for core subjects can be hideously expensive, so check to see if you can loan one to see if its an absolute must have, and then check out whether you can grab it secondhand. Some University bookshops sell recent secondhand copies of textbooks or check the noticeboards to see if a classmate from the previous year is selling their copy.

Now, let’s take a look at journal articles.

Journals and periodicals are basically scientific ‘magazines’ that publish on a regular basis, either monthly or quarterly. There are hundreds of business journals and periodicals and they tend to focus on a very specific niche in a much wider subject as Banking, Innovation, or Marketing.

But choosing business journals and periodicals can be problematic. Imagine that you’re visiting a city that you’ve never been to before. You’re not a local so you don’t know which are the good neighbourhoods (where you can happily wander and sight-see) and the bad neighbourhoods (where you’re likely to get into trouble). Journals can be a bit like this.

The best journals only publish a handful of papers in each edition and competition to be included is high among academics. Even if they are published, these papers can take a couple of years to be accepted because each potential article is first reviewed anonymously by other top specialists in the field, who point out errors, inconsistencies or problems that need to be amended.

These crème de la crème journals are described as having a blind peer-review process because the potential author doesn’t know who their reviewers are, and the reviewers have the author’s name hidden from them too.

This means there’s no opportunity to be swayed into accepting an article because a reviewer saw a famous name. Every article stands on its own merits. Think of these journals as the Mayfair or Park Lane neighbourhoods on your Monopoly board. If you read these articles you will know that you reading rigourous, credible research by authors who have been reviewed to the highest standards.

Then there are the up and coming journals. These are newer journals in a field that maybe haven’t got the benefit of a long track record. Or they may be journals in a newer area of academia – Human Computer Interaction journals looking at social media might fall into this group. They’re often sound journals, they occasionally showcase the rising stars of academia, and you’ll find some real gems of articles in them. They're more like the Angel Islington or Pentonville Road neighbourhoods - up and coming and often interesting!

How do you know which journals are the most credible?

In the same way, you would check the rating of a restaurant or hotel on TripAdvisor, the best way to judge whether a journal is of high quality is to look for its rating.

In Business Schools, the list to use is the ABS list. This ranks all the academic journals by field, giving them a rating from 1 to 4*. Stick to the journals at the higher end of this list and you’ll be fine.

What about those other neighbourhoods?

There is another type of journal that you need to know about. These are open access journals. These were begun with the excellent intention that instead of charging students and Universities to access journal articles they would charge authors and offer free articles.

Many of these journals do exactly that. Unfortunately, as with any self-publishing, this does mean that there are some journals that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

‘Who’s afraid of peer review?’ by John Bohannan is worth a read and shows how a deliberately falsified science paper managed to get past checks that should have stopped it being published. Beall's list, created and updated by Jeffrey Beall of the University of Colorado, holds a list of questionable open access journals that are best avoided. These journals are more like wandering down an unknown alley! Just be prepared folks, that’s all I’m saying.

Other materials

Most of the time you’ll access the material you’ll read in the library itself or online through the University’s library portal. Universities have subscriptions to most of the highly rated journals and books and many can be read electronically.

You might not appreciate this ease of access, but I remember the days of popular books being on four-hour loan from the library and having to hide hard copies of Sloan Management Review behind other journals, just so I’d know it was still there when I came back from eating my jam sandwiches for lunch! (Hey, I was poor and needed the money for books).

But not everything online is golden.

By now you’ll understand that the most credible and reliable sources are those that are recently issued by an academic publisher and preferably edited by a well-known academic or in the case of journals, peer-reviewed. But sometimes you may need to go beyond academic sources, for example, if you are asked to do a report on a particular company or write an essay discussing an industry or leading business figure. How should you tell if these are credible and reliable?

The resources that you might draw on to discuss a particular person, company, or industry would most likely come from:

  • newspapers
  • annual reports
  • company websites
  • wikis
  • blogs
  • websites, and
  • social media

Again, it's helpful to consider if they are U.S.E.A.B.L.E.* - Unbiased, Scientific, Exact, Accurate, Balanced, Logical,  and Evaluated. You'll find some non-academic sources are better quality than others.

Newspapers such as the Financial Times and Telegraph and television and radio broadcasters such as the BBC are usually reliable sources to use.

Annual reports are public documents that have been carefully prepared under close scrutiny and are trusted sources of information about the financial aspects of the firm. It is worth pointing out though that they may show the company in a positive light in any accompanying commentary.

Similarly, company websites will have information which is predominantly accurate and factual, although again expect a positive bias or spin on the information that a company presents to the public.

Wikis and blogs are an area where you must exercise some caution. It's worth talking about Wikipedia. It's a useful and fairly accurate encyclopedia and it can be incredibly useful for students to gain understanding in a particular concept or area. BUT, it isn't infallible and it often doesn't go into sufficient detail on subjects to be cited in an essay or report. By all means use it during your early research on a topic, but if you don't want to signal to your professor or tutor that you're a complete newbie at essay writing - don't reference Wikipedia in your essay, find an academic source.

Regarding blogs, websites, and social media - again, check the credentials of the person writing it. Are they an academic? A government or company spokesperson? Are they presenting a fair and balanced picture? Or is the piece all positive or negative? There are some helpful blogs out there (I'd like to think this is one of them), even so, exercise your judgment and...

If in doubt, leave it out!

The final point to bear in mind is that even if this data comes from a trusted source, it may not be as credible as an academic source.

General sources will often be unscientific in the way they conduct research, collect data, analyse results and present them. They may be biased (company websites or blogs) or plain wrong (wikis and social media). Because they are not grounded in the research that has been done by other social scientists, it’s hard to use the material to make claims about a topic in your essay or assignments. It's okay to use them sparingly, depending on the assignment, but make sure you build your argument on the bedrock of academic literature.

Putting it all together

Phew, what a lot to take in! You’ve learned about how to identify a credible and reliable source, what books are appropriate, how to choose the best journals to read and cite in your essays, (and how to avoid dodgy ones) and which alternative sources in the public domain to choose.

That knowledge immediately puts you ahead of most students. Those are the students that get 50-something marks because they draw upon online sources that are neither credible or reliable.

Take a break and make yourself a drink. You’ve earned it!

Next week, I’ll build on what you’ve learned today and teach you EXACTLY what to read and how to search for it, using a specific case study example. Afterwards, you'll have the same step-by-step flow chart I use to outline my reading for an essay or assignment!

Footnote: * I know the American spelling of USEABLE drops the first E, so if that's the spelling you remember most easily you can always leave 'Exact' out :)