Two principles for sources, especially secondary (those based on a primary, or eyewitness, source): (1) "One good source is worth more than a score of mediocre ones"; (2) "One accurate summary of a good source is sometimes worth more than the source itself" (emphasis orig.). Sadly, much research is not reported accurately, even by other scholars themselves. Here's how to go about good reading and using (not a sequence of steps, but rather a group):
- Evaluate sources. (1) Skim books/articles (see Quick Tip at end). (2) When skimming tells you that a source is important, read it slowly and with awareness as to the total context of any statements you might use. If you see "quoted in" after information, trace that back and see how (in)accurately researchers have quoted the original material from its original context.
- Take full notes. Make notecards with complete bibliographical information (i.e. author/editor, title, volume, publisher, edition, place published, date, page number, keywords, summary of source, direct quotation, your own thoughts about connections, and library call numbers for books). Use a text document or 5x8 cards - 3x5 are impractical unless you naturally write in a 6-point font. After making notes, check the source again. Be careful not to rephrase too closely to the original. If it's a direct quote, make LARGE quote marks around the quoted text, word for word.
- Get the context right. Look at the author's line of reasoning, relative importance of points in the original source, the author's level of confidence ("seems to ___"), author's views vs. author's summary of someone else (this can be tricky!), roots of disagreement in two different sources, etc. Triple-check.
- Get help from others! Form a study group, explain your thinking at a given point to laymen, and ask for others' critical opinions.
- Know the source's geography - things to read include the abstract (articles), headings, chapter titles, oft-cited sources, table of contents, sections of chapters, etc.
- Find the point of the argument - this should be in the introduction (particularly the last part thereof) or the conclusion. Note types of evidence used.
- Find important sub-points. Look for transition words (first...second..., finally..., etc.) and read the first and last parts of each transitioned chunk.
- Find key themes. Write these with the source's bibliographical information. These aid in later sifting of sources.
- Skim paragraphs - first sentence + last sentence. Do this if steps 1-4 give iffy answers.