Appropriate Number of Sources/References for Research Paper

Last Updated: 14 November 2021

Using Sources in Research Paper

Writing a research paper requires gathering information, synthesizing it, critically analyzing it, and organizing it into a research paper format that is preferred or recommended by your instructor/institution. While writing certainly takes up much of the time allocated for a research paper, finding the sources to use takes the bulk of it. If you do not know how many references to use in a research paper, you can spend much of your time in an endless cycle of research.

However, when you determine the best number of sources to use and know where to find these sources, you will write a research paper within or before the deadline.

The issue of how many sources is required for a research paper is weighty. Some students we edit research papers for complain that their instructor stated that they need to add sources. Usually, we have discovered that it often occurs when the instructor does not advise on the appropriate number of references to be used. We are addressing this and other related factors in this guide.

This guide can be used as a cheat sheet for writing excellent academic term papers, assignments, homework, essay, or research paper. However, our main focus is how to integrate sources from research into your research paper, the number of references to use, where to get these sources, how to tell a good source, and other nitty-gritty.

Why must you use external sources when writing your Research Paper?

It is crucial to include outside sources in your research paper because they enrich your thinking, reinforce your arguments, and give you the power to present your arguments in the paper.

Using external sources also distinguishes your ideas from the ideas of others – you get the chance to appreciate the work of other researchers, which by extension, helps prevent plagiarism.

When writing an assignment, you draw ideas, examples, or evidence from the sources to support and reinforce your ideas and stance. It is for this reason that these sources are cited. However, when writing a research paper, it is a thesis-driven paper rather than a source-driven paper – like the annotated bibliography. Therefore, ensure that the sources you are using are related to your thesis or central argument.

You use evidence from the sources to support your thesis statement. In this sense, the scholarly sources help you contribute to the scholarly conversation with experienced scholars on your topic. You, by extension, give authority, relevance, and strength to your research paper, essay, or dissertation when you use credible sources.

Given the significance of external sources, not only when writing a research paper but also when writing a dissertation, essays, theses, reports, and term papers, it is important to use credible scholarly sources. Using credible sources helps your audience to see how you have backed your assertion with evidence. Ensure that your research paper has various sources to have a rounded view, diverse perspective, several voices, and reduce the chances of bias.

What is the best number of sources for a research paper?

As a general rule, the minimum number of sources to use in a research paper should match the number of pages of your research paper. That is to say that every page of a research paper must have one reference (not citations). So, assuming you are writing a 7-page research paper, you would need at least seven sources, although five can suffice. Of course, the number of sources is further determined by factors such as institutional requirements, rubrics, instructions from your instructor, and the complexity of your paper. However, maintaining such a match ensures that your content has well-balanced citations, critical analysis, good organization, and flow of ideas. 

If you are unsure about the number of sources to use in your research paper, the best thing to do is to ask your instructor soon as you are assigned to write a research paper.

Otherwise, if no response is forthcoming, let the minimum number of sources be the same number as the number of pages for you to align the length of the research paper to the quality of its content.

When using sources, don’t just throw them in your text as in-text citations; use them sparingly. For example, you can use them when giving examples, presenting arguments, quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing ideas from the sources.

And, of course, your entire paper should not be about the sources. Instead, analyze, criticize and write facts, then borrow from these sources to bolster your arguments. That way, you can write a top-grade research paper that scores you better marks. Check out our research paper writing guide for more insights.

Key Determinants of the Number of References/Sources to use

Many factors influence the number of references you can use in a research paper or essay. They define the right number of references, which means doing it right to avoid plagiarism. We advise that you determine the number of sources when writing a research paper outline so that the scope of your paper and research is defined early enough. You have a limited number of pages to write an essay. You cannot use every source available on your topic. You have to be very picky and meticulous.  Here are some factors to consider when the number of references to use is not apparent.

Your personal Choice

If you notice that the instructor has not given you the exact number of sources to use or has allowed you the freedom to use whatever number of sources that you please, you need to be very careful when making such a choice.

We recommend using a manageable number of sources. You could go with as many as you want but don’t overdo it. Ensure that each source from where you summarize, paraphrase, or quote ideas is appropriately cited in the research paper. If you do not cite the sources, you might be accused of plagiarism that has severe consequences.

If you are unsure about the sources to use, we can help you. Our research paper writers understand how to plan, write, and format research papers with optimum references.

How challenging the topic is

In-depth and challenging topics require slightly more sources for a standard research paper. However, even when it is a short or long research paper, the complexity of the topic will ultimately determine the number of sources you use.

When writing about a complex topic that requires arguments, especially for controversial issues, it is best to use many sources to support, refute, or weigh arguments. In this case, researching further will help you identify good sources and facts that you can use to refine your arguments and support the research paper claims. On the other hand, simple topics that are direct will not need many references.

In short, the more complex the topic, the more the sources.

Content of the research paper

The subject matter of your research paper will define the number of references in your reference list. If, for instance, you are writing about a less studied topic or field, take the example of neuroscience or nanotechnology, you will notice that there is a dearth of previously written papers that you can cite. Newer fields of study also have few published studies. In this case, focus on the relevant current sources and not the number.

Paper Instructions/Rubric

Some teachers are generous enough to include the minimum sources to use in your research paper assignment. However, when the number of sources is specified, you better stick to it because failing to do so might lead to a deduction of marks.

A teacher who specifies the sources to be used understands the confusion that often comes when none is specified. They also do so to ensure that students engage in research to find credible sources.

Another reason is that specifying the resources also limits the scope of research one needs to take to write a paper. It makes the research process enjoyable so that everyone is comfortable, including the sources. It is also a move to check whether the students have grasped the formatting styles and using sources. For instance, the APA formatting style follows a different convention from Chicago and MLA. 

Data and Statistics

In most research papers, such as nursing research papers, philosophy research papers, and others, you will most likely apply statistics and data. If your research paper requires data and statistics from various sources, you will use many sources. For example, you need to provide quantifiable evidence when writing a quantitative research paper. Otherwise, for a paper that dwells on qualitative research, you will not need so many sources.

Suppose, for instance, you state that 85% of college students in America hate writing research papers due to the tedious writing and research process. In that case, you have to give facts from higher education journals, newspaper articles, periodicals, or relevant educational organization websites.

Because you are not the one that conducted the research, you have to acknowledge the source.

Institutional Research paper Standards

Most institutions have their norms. Colleges, universities, and high schools or professional bodies have their preferred ways of doing things. The same applies to research papers. For instance, most nursing schools require students to use nursing peer-reviewed journals published in the last 5 or 7 years.

Some schools will stick to a given number of references for research papers. For example, some schools require undergraduates to use at least ten sources in their research papers, but some might need less or more depending on the course. Others will simply tell you to match the sources to the pages of your content. So, if you are writing an 8-page research paper, for instance, you will need to use at least eight sources.

How to use sources in your Research Paper or academic paper

There are three major ways of integrating external sources into your research paper to support your central argument or present a counterclaim:

Paraphrasing entails writing in your own words. Do not fall into the temptation of changing a few words from the original source or simply restating the information exactly as is using different words. That will be considered Plagiarism. If you cannot state the words using your words, you are better off using a direct quotation.

When using evidence from other sources in your paper:

What sources should you use for a research paper?

You are probably wondering where to get the sources or references for your research paper. Although most of the instructors will partially cover this, it is an important aspect not only for research papers but also for your entire high school, college, university, or graduate-level papers.

There are three main categories of academic resources for research papers: primary, secondary, and tertiary research paper sources. The primary sources are based on different studies such as surveys, poems, court records, diaries, journals, interviews, research papers, and fieldwork, primarily published in academic journals.

The secondary resources have an analysis or description of the primary source. These could be articles, peer-reviewed journals, and books that interpret or review other sources, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and textbooks.

The tertiary sources organize and help in detecting secondary and primary material. They include indexes, databases, or abstracts.

To get a good source, you need to come up with keywords relating to your topic. Once you have these seed keywords, the first step is to search online. You can use search engines such as Duckduckgo, Google, Bing, or Yahoo. You will get a lot of information that can further help you build up your list of keywords for further search.

If you are to select good sources, only choose credible sources. For example, avoid blogs when writing a paper, same as Wikipedia. However, Wikipedia and blogs can be a great starting point to understand your topic.

You can get books, articles, and journals from online scholarly databases such as Ebscohost, Google Scholar, ProQuest, LexisNexis, PubMed, OVID, etc. the scholarly articles from these databases are reliable and relevant as long as you match them up to your topic.

You can also check magazines and newspapers. They are a great source of current news, latest occurrences, shifting debates, etc. You can check out credible news outlets such as The New York Times, Times Magazine, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and many other platforms.

If you prefer it the old way, you can visit the library and get good sources for your research paper. Librarians are usually very resourceful and can help you locate both online and offline resources as long as you specify your topic to them.

List of Credible Research Paper Sources

If you are writing a paper, you should focus first on getting a good topic then using it to develop keywords that you can use to search for reliable sources for your assignment. The process can be challenging, especially given that the internet has too much information. Good sources strengthen your arguments. Avoid websites and Wikipedia, but use them to learn more about your topic.

Here is a list of sources to get your facts from:

Research Organizations

Academic Libraries and Databases

Professional Standards Organizations

How to Tell the Credibility of Sources

There are many preferred methods used to determine the credibility of references to be used not only in research papers but also in other types of academic writing tasks. However, the CRAAP test is the widely used test that helps determine the fitness of a reference to be used in a research paper. You can use the test to evaluate the quality, relevance, and trustworthiness of a source based on its Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose.

Currency: the timeliness of the information

Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs

Authority: the source of the information

Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content

Purpose: the reason the information exists

Dos and Don’ts when using References

Our team of research writers has been generous enough to share some wisdom on what you should do or not do when using references in your academic writing.

FAQs about Number of Sources for a Research Paper

How do I determine the number of sources to use in my research paper?

What sources do I use in my research paper?

Some of the best sources or references to use in a research paper include magazine articles from trusted media houses, scholarly articles, peer-reviewed articles, reputable and reliable websites, journal articles, periodicals, governmental publications, organizational publications, PowerPoint presentations from class, dissertations, and other sources suggested in your rubric, instructions, or research paper prompt.

How many sources should I use in a 20-page paper?

It depends on the scope of the paper, its technicality, and the content required. If the 20-page paper is simple, assuming it is like a normal essay, you will need to use 20 sources. However, if the 20-page paper in question is complicated, such as papers in medicine, geography, history, anthropology, aviation, or nursing, you can extend the sources to 40. If there is too much statistics and data, you could go as high as 45-50, but you have to ask your instructor the optimum number of sources to use.

How many sources can I use in a 15-page essay?

If you are writing a 15-page paper, you should prepare at least 15 sources to use in the paper. However, you are allowed to extend to 20 sources if the topic is demanding or you want to draw meaningful conclusions using insights from multiple sources.

How many sources for a 10-page paper?

As a standard rule of thumb for research paper sources, a page should have one source. Therefore, a 10-page paper should have a minimum of 10 references or credible sources. However, if the topic is too complex, you can still use the ten or 15 sources. Thus, ten sources are efficient for a college, university, or graduate-level 10-page research paper.

How many sources for a 7-page paper?

For a standard 7-page paper, you should use a minimum of 5-7 sources. Using the minimum allows you to objectively present the ideas and tie them to the topic you are writing about. Even though you can use 10-15 sources, check on the limit as you want to make sense of the paper, based on arguments rather than mere reports of who said what.

How many sources for a 5-page paper?

Assuming that a page requires at least one source, a five-page paper can have a minimum of 5 sources/references. However, you might use more sources in a 5-page paper but be mindful not to dilute the content so that it becomes overly descriptive than critical. We would suggest not exceeding eight references for a standard 5-page paper. However, you can use ten references but be very vigilant.