Working with Sources: Evaluate Sources

Evaluate sources

What types of sources will I use? You'll usually be required 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, original 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 other specific types of sources, including:

► scholarly (or peer-reviewed) journal articles

► background sources

► books (scholarly)

► books (popular)

► popular magazines

► newspapers

► web resources

The 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!


How should I evaluate these sources? As you perform research for your assignments, you will encounter all of these types of resources. 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 appropriate 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 criteria - 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 Outdated information, sources with biases and sources without backup from research or other primary or secondary information and data can result in your paper being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. Is it you? 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?
  • Is there 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.)
  • Watch the language! Is it objective or emotional?
  • What are the author's sources? Is there a good mix of primary and secondary sources in the bibliography?
  • 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 qualifications?)
  • 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?
  • Is more than one viewpoint presented? Or are arguments one-sided without acknowledging other viewpoints?
  • Is the information "crowd-sourced?" In other words, are you reading the work of one author knowledgeable 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 the source: a non-profit organization, a for-profit company, an educational institution, the Federal Government, or an individual.

A scholarly journal is generally published by and for experts. In order to be published in a scholarly journal, an article must first go through the "peer review" process, in which a group of widely acknowledged experts in a field reviews it for content, scholarly soundness and academic value. In most cases, articles in scholarly journals present new, previously un-published research. Scholarly sources will almost always include:

♦ Bibliography and footnotes

♦ Author's name and academic credentials

As a general rule, scholarly journals are printed on plain (rather than glossy) paper, do not contain advertisements for popular consumer items and do not have colorful graphics and illustrations, unless such illustrations and graphics are part of the research done for the article.

Search for scholarly journal articles by using our search tool Scout, which can be found on the front page of the USMA Library website. Scout searches the books on our shelves, the ebooks to which we subscribe, and many of our databases - so it can find you a wide variety of sources. When using Scout, you can limit your results to "Peer Reviewed" items, or to "Academic Journals," by selecting the appropriate checkboxes in the left margin of the page. Click here to get to Scout!

 

Scholarly Books are written by authorities in their fields, and are generally published by University Press (UP) publishers (publishers affiliated with a college or university, such as Oxford Press or Princeton University Press), where they are subject to peer review, just like a scholarly journal article. How to know if the book you have chosen for your research is scholarly: Is it published by a university press?  Does it have sources and footnotes or endnotes? What is the background of the author - does she write for popular magazines or newspapers, is he a professor or scientist at an educational institution, or perhaps a researcher at a foundation or think tank? All of this information will indicate whether a book is scholarly.

 

Search for scholarly books by using Scout, and limiting your search results to "Books," or by going directly to the Library's catalog, which looks only for books on our shelves and ebooks. It's especially efficient to use the catalog when you have the name of a specific book, or an author whose work you want to find.

Popular magazines range from highly respected publications such as Scientific American and The Atlantic Monthly to general interest newsmagazines like Newsweek and US News & World Report. Articles in these publications tend to be written by staff writers or freelance journalists and are geared towards a general audience. Articles in popular magazines are more likely to be shorter than those in academic journals. While most magazines adhere to editorial standards, articles do not go through a peer review process and rarely contain bibliographic citations.

Popular books are those published by general-interest publishers, and are often referred to as "trade" publications. These books include both non-fiction and fiction books, written for informational or entertainment purposes, by a wide variety of authors with many different backgrounds and affiliations.


How do I evaluate popular sources? The first thing to be sure of when you are considering the use of popular sources for your research is whether your assignment allows you to use these types of sources. There may be a limit on the number of general or background sources you are allowed to use, and popular books and magazines can sometimes be used to provide that broad background information. Sometimes, though, you are not allowed to use any popular sources for your paper - so be sure to check your assignment prompt carefully!

Once you are sure that popular sources are allowed, be careful to evaluate them with your assignment in mind:

  • Determine the intended audience. Try to use popular materials that are aimed at educated adults.
  • Consider the tone, style, level of information, and assumptions the author makes about the reader.
  • Determine if the content of the source is fact, opinion, or propaganda. Be wary of using opinions without the backup of facts or research from your other, more scholarly sources.
  • Is the language objective or emotional? Emotional language may indicate a bias; make sure to seek out other, perhaps contradictory, opinions for balance.
  • How timely is the source? Make sure that the popular sources you use are contemporary to the events about which you are writing, or offer an analysis of these events from a current viewpoint.
  • How credible is the author? Does she have any professional background in the subject? If the document is anonymous, what do you know about the organization or publisher of the information?
  • Is more than one argument presented?  Or are arguments one-sided with no acknowledgement of other viewpoints?

If you have questions about the popular sources you've found, see a Librarian for assistance!

There are so many resources online these days, it can be tempting to do most of your searching on the internet. However, be attentive to the requirements of your assignment - many research papers you will have to complete here will specifically EXCLUDE internet sources. For those papers and projects for which you are allowed to use resources found on the internet, it's essential to evaluate what you've found before planning to use it in your research or as a source for your paper. Understanding the difference between what you can find on the Web and what you can find in more traditional print sources is key to evaluating your sources. (Note that although you utilize the internet to access many of the USMA Library's collection of scholarly journals and books, when we discuss "internet" resources in this guide, we're referring to non-database, non-book sources). Here are some things to consider when evaluating what you find on the web:

Publication Process:

  • Traditional print sources go through an extensive publication process that includes editing and article review. The process has fact-checkers, multiple reviewers, and editors to ensure quality of publication, BUT:
  • Anyone with a computer and access to the Internet can publish a Web site or electronic document. Most Web documents do not have editors, fact-checkers, or other types of reviewers.

Authorship and Affiliations:

  • Print sources clearly indicate who the author is, what organization(s) he or she is affiliated with, and when his or her work was published, BUT:
  • Authorship and affiliations are often difficult to determine on the Internet. Some sites may have author and sponsorship listed, but many do not.

Sources and quotations:

  • In most traditional print publications, external sources of information and direct quotations are clearly marked and identified; BUT:
  • Sources the author used or referred to in the text may not be clearly indicated in an Internet source.

Bias and special interests:

  • While bias certainly exists in traditional publications, printing is more expensive and difficult to accomplish. Most major publishers are out to make a profit and will either not cater to special interest groups or will clearly indicate when they are catering to special interest groups, BUT:
  • On the internet, the purpose of the online text may be misleading. A Web site that appears to be factual may actually be persuasive and/or deceptive.

Author qualifications:

  • Qualifications of an author are almost always necessary for print sources. Only qualified authors are likely to have their manuscripts accepted for publication, BUT:
  • Even if the author and purpose of a website can be determined, the qualifications of the author are not always given.

Publication information:

  • Publication information such as date of publication, publisher, author, and editor are always clearly listed in print publications, BUT:
  • Dates of publication and timeliness of information are questionable on the Internet. Dates listed on Web sites could be the date posted, date updated, or a date may not be listed at all. 

Here are some places to find web-based resources that can help you with your research (while keeping in mind all the advice given above):

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