Why Reference Sources?
Reference sources can provide you very quick access to basic information on a given topic and provide you with all of the information you need to get your research paper started.
The most obvious of reference sources that we all think of immediately is Wikipedia. Wikipedia can provide you very quickly with basic factual information. However! be aware that the content on Wikipedia is not always correct, and more importantly, is not edited or refereed. As such, it is unlikely that your professor will be happy to see you using Wikipedia as a source for your research paper.
Fortunately we have many other excellent, scholarly reference sources that are just as easy to get to as Wikipedia, and will give you information that you can actually use in your papers, as well as pointers to other sources. Using a source like these will get your research going quickly and smoothly. Below are some examples.
Some reference sources are general in nature, not specific to any given discipline. One example might be the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is considered the "definitive record of the English language," and is the source one might want to use to find out how a word has been used over time. It tracks the etymology of words as well as their use in written English, with quotations given for each word of examples of how it appeared over time.
How about encyclopedia sources? We've got loads, and they are nothing like the plain old encyclopedias you remember from elementary school. Or Wikipedia for that matter.
Academics publish scholarly encyclopedias, which are compendia of articles on a given topic within a field. Some of these encyclopedias are multi-volume and cover a very large field of study, like the Encyclopedia of Religion (which we have both in print and online.) Experts are chosen to write about some aspect of the topic- say the Biblical Mary. What you have then, is usually a several-page article on a given topic, which gives you history and an overview of the scholarship on that topic.
Most important about these entries are:
You'll find that there are thousands of these scholarly sources. There are a couple of places you can go to find them for YOUR topic: