How to Find Reliable Data
One of the big challenges students face in writing research papers is finding reliable sources of data. This challenge isn’t exclusive to students: many people might need a refresher course in what constitutes a reliable source.
First, what constitutes data? If you search the word “data” you will likely get many vague generalized definitions. When researchers are talking about data, we mean findings that are the result of empirical observation based on systematic study. Simply put, data are what we get when we do research. In most cases in the social sciences, research papers should include findings from a systematic study, yours or other peoples’.
Data can be quantitative, in the form of numbers, or qualitative, which includes quotes, pictures, and researchers’ descriptions. Both forms of data are useful, but allow us to draw different conclusions. Typically quantitative data yields more breadth than depth, and the opposite is true for qualitative data. (See Janis Prince Inniss’s post for more discussion on the distinction.)
You might be wondering where to look for specific data sources. Maybe you have done a basic Internet search and are overwhelmed with choices and need help on where to begin. Here are some tools for finding data that is generally considered reliable:
- Federal, state, and sometimes local agencies such as the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Center for Education Statistics are just a few of many federal agencies staffed by social scientists who collect, calculate, and analyze data. They write reports that are easily accessible online.
- Research centers at universities or “think tanks” like Pew Research Center, NORC's General Social Survey (affiliated with University of Chicago), Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality, and Rand Corporation to name a few, also collect and analyze data and present reports, often online.
- Journal articles and other peer-reviewed publications, such as books published by university presses, may analyze data collected by the sources noted above or collected by the author(s). When collected by the author, data tends to be smaller in scope than the large agencies listed above.
Some advocacy groups also compile and even collect data and present their findings online. These can be useful sources, but bear in mind that they might interpret their results in a way that promotes their cause. This doesn’t necessarily mean that their data aren’t useful, but be sure to carefully examine the data to see if the results match the tone of their interpretation of results, and definitely check out the data sources and methodologies they used to gather their data.
While no source of data can ever be perfect, it is important to consider the following when evaluating a potential source:
- How did they gather their data? Can the results be generalized to the entire population or just a subset of the population?
- Are you reviewing the original source or just someone discussing the research? Oftentimes research is misinterpreted—accidentally or intentionally—by third parties who might not understand its nuances or could leave out important information. Beware of news stories or even blog posts—they are typically not primary sources of data (which is why we link to primary sources on this blog).
- Read and understand the limits of any study. When you discuss the results of a study, it is important to note if the researchers looked at only one group (say, college students) which might be very different from the general population.
- Are their other related studies on this issue? Were the findings similar? While one study might be interesting, it is important to note if its findings are unusual compared with other previous research. This doesn’t mean that the researchers were “wrong,” just that it is important to recognize the limitations of any given study.
Too often, when I assign students to write research papers, they go no further than looking at the minimum number of studies required and miss some very useful information. Do several studies reference one specific source? If so, the source is likely influential and worth looking into. One of the best ways to find out about research on a topic is to go to the works cited on one or two books or journal articles on the subject.
Finding data can be an exciting part of the learning process. Just be sure what you have found are from a reliable source that uses sound methods of investigation.