Online Sources vs. Print Sources: Understanding the Difference

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The amount of information available through online sources and print sources grows constantly. Many sources that started as traditional print sources are available both in print and online. However, there are some sources only available in print and some only available on the internet. Each type of source offers unique benefits that can help you find the information you need.

Traditional print sources

Traditional print sources include any source that was previously published in printed format. These sources are easily found in public or academic libraries and bookstores. The following list includes sources that are traditional print sources; although, some are also available on the internet as well.




Government reports



Legal documents




Press releases

Scholarly journals


Trade journals/magazines

In addition to these print sources, some multimedia sources were traditionally available offline, but are now available both on- and offline, including radio shows/broadcasts, television broadcasts, documentaries, interactive discussions, public meetings and more.

Print sources offer the benefit of being indexed within your library’s catalog system (likely online) and being cross-referenced with other research materials within your library.

Online sources

Online sources consist of anything that is available on the internet in a digital format. Common internet sources include the following:

Audio files


Chat rooms

Discussion lists/sites



Interactive websites

Message boards

Online radio shows

PDF documents


Video blogs


When locating internet sources, you should note whether the source is available only online or if it is also available offline in printed form.One of the biggest benefits of using online sources is the widespread availability and access to information from anywhere you have internet access.

A note of caution when using internet sources

While reliable and trustworthy sources are available online, it is not always easy to find them. As you search for internet sources, use caution, and spend a good amount of time evaluating sources using evaluation criteria.

The problem with many online sources is that they are more subjective than objective in nature. In addition, anyone can publish information to the web. As a result, people claiming to be experts present inaccurate, false or misleading information. For example, every website does not make a good source of information, but authoritative websites, such as those that end with the URL extension of .gov or .edu, are usually reliable sources of information.

Finding print sources online

Many traditional print sources are available online if you know where to look. Professional and academic online databases house vast numbers of scholarly journal articles for example. Many of the database sites are pay-to-use, but your school should have access to subscriptions that give you access to full-text articles and more. There are also online directories of information, and the Invisible Web is a great research tool when you know how to navigate it. Similarly, many books are available online, either in their entirety or select chapters.

Regardless of where you obtain your sources, carefully evaluate every source using evaluation criteria. Your final sources for your paper are likely to be a mix of both print and online sources. Ultimately, the quality of your research paper is determined in large part by the quality of your sources—regardless of whether they are print resources or online sources.