Why Evaluate Sources - Or, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
As you perform research for your class assignments, you will encounter many types of resources: books, popular magazines, scholarly articles and websites. However, not everything you find on your topic will be suitable for your research, or meet the criteria given by your instructors for use in writing college-level papers. How do you make sense of what is out there and evaluate its authority and appropriateness for your research?
Using the wrong source, or a source that's not apprpriate for your level of research, can cause a multitude of problems. If you use an encyclopedia as a sole source for a college-level paper, you will likely get a FAILING grade, and if you do not use a scholarly source when one is specifically required, you will not fulfill the assignment cirteria - again, another FAIL. But bad grades are not the only adverse consequence of not evaluating the sources you plan to use. Outdated information, sources with biases and sources without backup from research or other primary or secondary information and data can result in your paper being one-sided, your arguments being indefensible, or the facts you quote plain WRONG.
Check your sources for these potential problem areas, and ask for help if the sources you've found turn out to have issues:
- Determine the intended audience. Are you the intended audience? Consider the tone, style, level of information, and assumptions the author makes about the reader. Are they appropriate for your needs? College-level papers should be drawing on scholarly and expert sources.
- Browse through the table of contents and the index.This will give you an overview of the source. Is your topic covered in enough depth to be helpful? Broad generalizations won't help you get to the heart of your topic.
- Try to determine if the content of the source is fact, opinion, or propaganda. If you think the source is offering facts, are the sources for those facts clearly indicated?
- Do you think there's enough evidence offered? Is the coverage comprehensive? (As you learn more and more about your topic, you will notice that this gets easier as you become more of an expert.)
- Is the language objective or emotional?
- Does the author use a good mix of primary and secondary sources for information?
- If the source is opinion, does the author offer sound reasons for adopting that stance? (Is the author reputable? Does she have a scholarly background? Is he a known expert in the field? What are his educational and professional quailifications?)
- How timely is the source? Is the source twenty years out of date? Some information becomes dated when new research is available, but other older sources of information can be quite sound fifty or a hundred years later.
- Do some cross-checking. Can you find some of the same information given elsewhere?
- Are there vague or sweeping generalizations that aren't backed up with evidence?
- Are arguments very one-sided with no acknowledgement of other viewpoints?
- Is the information "crowd-sourced?" In other words, are you reading the work of one author knowledgable in the field, or the input of members of the public who know a little something about your topic (Wikipedia-type sources)?
- Pay attention to whether the information is provided by a non-profit organization, a for-profit company, an educational institution, the Federal Goverment, or an individual.
So Many Sources!
When you get your assignment guidelines, you'll find that you'll be asked to use a variety of different types of sources for your research. Besides the broad categories of Primary Sources (materials created at the time of the events you are researching, or by people who were involved in those events - in other words, orginal documents and eyewitness accounts) and Secondary Sources (materials created or written by people who are removed in time from the events - in other words, materials that provide an analysis of the events in question), your prompt may specify that you are to use particular types of sources, including:
- scholarly (or peer-reviewed) journal articles
- background sources
- books (scholarly)
- books (popular)
- popular magazines
- web resources
This rest of this guide will help demystify these sources, and give you some hints and tips for judging whether the ones you've found in your research are appropriate for your work, and why!