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Evaluating sources is a critically important skill for all college students, as the quality of your sources largely creates the quality of your finished project. Below you will find lessons on how to evaluate every source you are considering for your work.
From the Berkeley Library, University of California: both scholarly and popular sources can be appropriate for your research purposes, depending on your research question, but research assignments will often require you to consult primarily with scholarly materials.
You can begin evaluating a physical information source (a book or an article for instance) even before you have the physical item in hand. Taking a look at the bibliographic citation can tell you quite a bit about the source. A bibliographic citation is the written description of a book, journal article, essay, or some other published material that appears in an online library catalog or index. Bibliographic citations usually have three main components: author, title, and publication information. These three pieces of information can help you determine if the source will be useful to you for a research project. For online sources, you can assess the usefulness of a web site by carefully examining the home page for those three main components: author or creator, title, and publisher of the page.
What are the author's credentials? This includes information about where he or she works, his or her educational background, the topics the author has written about in the past, and the author's experience. It is important to ask if the book or article you've found by the author was written on a topic in the author's area of expertise (or if not). You can search Who's Who publications found in the reference section of your library as well as the biographical information located in the publication itself to determine the author's affiliation and credentials.
Has your instructor mentioned this author? Have you seen the author's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? Respected authors are frequently cited by other scholars. When researching, be sure to note those authors who appear in many different sources.
Is the author associated with a reputable institution or organization? Can you determine the basic values and goals of that organization?
When was the source published? In print books or journals, you can often locate this date on the title page below the name of the publisher, or on the next page with the copyright information. On web pages, the date of the last revision will usually be at the bottom of the home page; in other instances, you'll find the last updated date at the bottom of every page. Some web pages may not have a last revised date, but will have a copyright date -- that's the date you will need to use.
Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic? Topic areas of continuing and rapid development -- such as technology, the sciences, economics, and current political affairs -- call for the most current information. At the most extreme, many of today's news sources online note the hour and minute the articles were posted on that site. On the other hand, topics in the humanities (literature and history are great examples) often require material written many years ago.
Edition or Revision:
Is this a first edition of this publication? Later editions (second, third, etc.) indicate that a source has been revised and updated to reflect changes in knowledge, to include omissions, or that the text has been rewritten to further meet the intended reader's needs. Many printings or editions of a source may indicate that the work has become a standard source in that area of scholarship and can be considered as a reliable source. For online sources, this can be indicated with revision dates.
Note the publisher. If the source is published by a university press, it is likely to be scholarly. But, the fact that the publisher is reputable does not necessarily guarantee quality, though it does show that the publisher probably has high regard for the source being published.
Your initial evaluation of the source may help you determine if you will want to use it in when you are writing your paper or not. Taking more time to do more of an in-depth analysis will help you make a final decision as to the usefulness of the source as well as give you fairly good knowledge about the source so you will be able to successfully incorporate the information it holds into your paper/research project.
Just exactly who is the author addressing? What type of audience is it? (To paraphrase one of my professors: Who cares? And so what?) Is the publication aimed at a specialized or a general audience? Consider your needs in regards to research and for your final paper. Take the Goldilocks and the Three Bears approach -- is this source to elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your needs?
Is the information covered by the source fact, opinion, or fiction? It's not always easy to separate fact from opinion (or from fiction). Facts can usually be verified; opinions -- though they might be based on factual information -- are derived from the interpretation of facts. Fiction takes that a step further and blends fact and opinion together. Skilled writers can make you think their interpretations/creations are really facts when they aren't.
Does the information seem to be valid and well-researched, or is it questionable and unsupported by evidence? Assumptions should be reasonable. Take the time to note errors or omissions.
Are the arguments/ideas put forward in this source similar to other articles you've read on the same topic? The more an author departs from the views of others in the same field, the more carefully and critically you will need to scrutinize that author's ideas.
Is the author's point of view objective and impartial? Is the language reasonable -- free from emotion-arousing words and bias?
Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information? Does the work extensively or marginally cover your topic? You should explore enough sources to be sure you have found a variety of viewpoints.
Is the material primary or secondary in nature? Primary sources are the raw material of the research process. Secondary sources are based on primary sources. For example, if you were researching Konrad Adenauer's role in rebuilding West Germany after World War II, Adenauer's own writings would be one of many primary sources available on this topic. Others might include relevant government documents and contemporary German newspaper articles. Scholars use this primary material to help generate historical interpretations--a secondary source. Books, encyclopedia articles, and scholarly journal articles about Adenauer's role are considered secondary sources. In the sciences, journal articles and conference proceedings written by experimenters reporting the results of their research are primary documents. Choose both primary and secondary sources when you have the opportunity. (For further clarification, see the Berkeley Library's Introduction to Primary Source tutorial here.)
Is the article you are using organized logically? Are the main points clearly presented? Do you find the text easy to read, or is it stilted, or choppy? Is the author's argument repetitive? All of these points indicate the amount of time and attention that has been invested in a given article: if someone has invested in an article, it's more of higher quality than an article that clearly has not been well thought-out, researched, edited, and proof-read.
Locate critical reviews of books in a reviewing source such as Book Review Index, Book Review Digest, or Periodical Abstracts (check your home college library). Are the reviews generally positive? Is the book under review considered a valuable contribution to the field? Does the reviewer mention any other books that might be better? If so, locate these sources for more information on your topic.
Do the various reviewers agree on the value/attributes of the book or has it aroused controversy among the critics?