Learning how to evaluate sources can save valuable time in the research process and increase the effectiveness of your papers. This guide introduces you the things experienced researchers consider when evaluating their sources.
Understanding the purpose and audience of a source will help determine its usefulness for your research project. A general reference source in a library serves a much different purpose than an editorial in a newspaper, an advertisement in a magazine, or a Web site providing information about a product or service.
Similarly, sources targeting an audience of experts in a particular field contain different kinds of information than those written for a general audience.
Those written for technical experts assume an audience with a great deal of background knowledge. Typically, these sources skip general treatments of a topic in favor of detailed discussions tailored to experts.
In contrast, sources written for general audiences provide background information for their readers.
Writers use sources for a variety of purposes: to support a point, to illustrate a range of positions on an issue and to show that they are not alone in their opinions, to name a few. With rare exceptions (such as when you are illustrating divergent opinions), the authors you cite should be reliable and trustworthy.
A Note on Field Sources: When conducting field research, you are actually selecting the sources, or "authors," of your information. In particular, in the case of an interview, you select a recognized "authority" to provide you with specific data and informed opinions on your subject.
Similarly, but in a more general sense, you select a group of people to which you intend to distribute a questionnaire or a particular setting or environment that you intend to observe.
Check the library catalog also to see if the author you are considering is listed in any specialized reference works such as Who's Who, Contemporary Authors or American Men and Women of Science.
Inclusion in reference works such as these does not necessarily guarantee their trustworthiness, but it will provide you with a more informed idea of the author's background.
When your source is a weekly newsmagazine like Time, Newsweek, or U.S. News & World Report, the author is likely to be a reporter who is neither famous nor world renowned.
Though weekly news magazines do occasionally feature articles by experts, and all have solid reputations for careful fact-checking and presenting fair ranges of opinion, be aware that some select facts that mirror the opinion of their editors.
When getting information from the World Wide Web, online newsgroups and certain electronic databases, it may be difficult to find and evaluate the author's credentials. If they are not provided, consider emailing the author with a formal inquiry.
Above all, when in doubt, carefully consider whether using a particular author's information is worthwhile. Weigh the pros and cons.
Ultimately, the best measure of someone's authority is whether their work meets the standards and critical demands of other recognized authorities. Ask your instructor and other knowledgeable experts on campus what they know about the author.
Expect differences in opinion among leaders of various political parties or types of organizations. An editorial about preserving wetlands written by the president of the Sierra Club will be a lot different than one written by a lobbyist for a real estate organization.
Although it's rare to find a complete listing of an author's affiliations, many periodicals, both in print and online, provide brief descriptions of an article or column's author. Check these descriptions for clues about an author's affiliations.
If you are interested in learning more about them, consider searching the World Wide Web. An increasing number of authors have created home pages on which they list information about themselves, their educational background, professional experience and personal interests.
Every author holds opinions that affect his or her discussion of an issue, opinions that you as a reader must try to recognize and understand. Even the most seemingly factual report, such as an encyclopedia article, can carry an understated or implied judgment. Such judgments reflect an author's bias or preference for one side of an issue over another.
As you evaluate a source, consider whether the author's bias affects his or her presentation of information and opinions. Ask whether this results in one side of an issue being treated more favorably than another. To explore an author's biases, you must ask where his or her allegiances lie. Is the bias hidden or stated? Ask yourself if you need to look for a balancing viewpoint or approach?
Just because an author has a strong bias does not mean that he or she has written something invalid. However, in the interest of being prepared to fend off attacks from those who want to challenge your analysis or argument, it is best if you recognize, early on, to what biases an author does hold.
When an author's identity is withheld, as is occasionally the case with newspaper articles and Internet sites on the World Wide Web, try to identify the sponsoring organization or publisher and proceed from there.
If you're working with a print source that does not list an author, consider the nature of the publication: is it a nationally respected newspaper or a supermarket tabloid? Is it a brochure or pamphlet published by an organization recognized as a leader in its field?
On a Web site, look for the organization or publisher's contact information. You should be able to find something relevant, even if it is a disclaimer, on the "home" or "about" page.
As you evaluate a source, consider its publisher. The person, organization, government agency, or corporation that prints or electronically distributes a source plays an important role in shaping its content. Like authors, publishers usually have a bias about a particular topic or issue.
A corporate publisher, such as Microsoft, which publishes information on one of the largest sites on the World Wide Web, presents its products and services more favorably than those of its competitors. Similarly, political organizations, such as the Democratic Party or the National Rifle Association, publish sources that contain information in support of policies favored by their respective organization.
Information gathered from Web sites and periodicals is the kind most likely to reflect a publisher's bias.
To learn more about the publisher of a Web site, try to locate its disclaimers. Look for their "site information" or "about" links and examine them carefully. If you are visiting a Web site sponsored by an organization or agency, find out where their mission statement is located and examine it carefully as well.
Finally, examine the related Web sites to which the one you are evaluating is linked. Web site publishers tend to link their site to ones they think you will find useful and those that generally agree with their particular outlook or mission statement.
Examining these links can help you decide whether the publisher of a particular Web site is credible and provides information relevant to the paper you intend to write.
Here are a few questions to ask when evaluating a Web site:
To learn more about the publisher of a periodical, take a moment to skim through it and note the following:
As a researcher, you may find that your sources are published in a variety of mediums; for instance, print sources, electronic sources, and field sources.
It's very important that the information and evidence you are planning on presenting come from sources that are as reliable, up-to-date and relevant as possible.
Information regarding the most recent discoveries, technical advances and developments in all fields of endeavor are published on a regular basis and you should include them in your research.
If you cite five-year-old sources regarding procedures for treating AIDS, for instance, your research would not include the latest findings and treatments in that field. Your information would be dated and not necessarily valid.
When using older materials, do so when their value has held up over time or your research paper specifically calls for the inclusion of an historical perspective.
Some sources are considered to be general; that is, they are written for a general-interest audience. Newspapers and popular magazines typically provide general information about a topic or issue. In contrast, highly specialized publications are written for specific, specialized audiences such as microbiologists, mortgage bankers and auto mechanics.
General sources can be helpful as you begin your research, but as your project develops you may need the deeper authority of specialized sources to provide the latest information on your topic. Keep in mind when using extremely specialized works that you may get people in over their heads. Be sure to explain information that your audience needs to understand if they are to grasp the conclusions you arrive at in your paper.
For some papers it may be appropriate to cite an article in a popular magazine, and for others it may be necessary to cite the research findings published in the scholarly journal on which the magazine article was based. So, why use one source over another?
You must consider what role the source will play in your paper. Ask yourself, is the information it contains useful for your purposes as a writer? Does the source contain strong quotations or hard facts that would be effective in your final paper? Is it relevant, in terms of the subject matter and in the way it tackles it?
Remember, what you're looking for is the best possible sources for your particular paper. Ask yourself not only "Will this do?" but "Will something else be better?"
Consider, as well, how using this source in your paper will affect the future direction of your research. Does it contain information that challenges your assumptions about the topic? Does it present any strong evidence against your position that you must then counter or refute with opposing evidence?
Does it suggest a new direction that might be more interesting? Your research project will probably grow and change as you learn more about it. It's wise to check in with yourself now and again to make sure you have a clear direction and if it's the same as you began with, or completely new.
Finally, consider whether a source is directly relevant to your research question. It's surprisingly easy to get sidetracked by a persuasive book, article, or Web site on a topic that is only slightly connected to the direction of your research.
A primary source is a firsthand account written by an eyewitness or a participant. It contains raw data and immediate impressions. For example, primary sources for a large fire caused by a gas leak would include the statements of victims and witnesses, the article written by a journalist who was at the scene, and the report of the fire chief in charge of putting out the blaze.
A secondary source is an analysis of the information contained in one or more primary sources. For example, a second journalist, using the article on the large fire and gas leak as background for a story on industrial accidents, or a historian using the same for a book on urban life in the twentieth century are secondary sources.
For most research papers, both primary and secondary sources will be used. Secondary sources are no less trustworthy than firsthand reports. Remember, eyewitnesses can be prejudiced, self-serving, or simply less informed than a later writer who has synthesized many eyewitness accounts.
In writing a history paper on the attitudes of American social workers toward World War I, you might quote a primary source: Jane Addams, founder of Chicago's Hull House, who was a pacifist. If you relied only on Addams' words alone, however, your reader might get the idea that social workers were unanimously opposed to the war effort. To put Addams' views into perspective, you'd also want to include secondary sources, showing that most of her peers did not identify with pacifism and publicly disagreed with her.
When you find yourself repeatedly citing a fact or source, as quoted in someone else's analysis, it might be wise to go to the primary source from which it came. For example, statistics are often used by both sides arguing an issue-often it's only the interpretation that differs. You might find it useful to go back to the original research (the publication of which is a primary source) and learn where the facts end and the interpretation begins.
The evidence provided by a source-it's information, opinions, and ideas-will tell you a great deal about its reliability and usefulness. As you evaluate a source, consider whether the evidence is carefully put together, complete and up to date.
Consider the thesis, if any, and whether it is supported or defended by the presentation of credible evidence. Ask whether the argument or analysis is convincing. If the source seems slipshod, or leaves several important questions unanswered, you might do better to look for another source.
To evaluate the evidence in a source, ask yourself the following questions:
Working with Field Sources: When working in the field, ask similar questions to those already mentioned regarding the evidence provided and the credibility of its sources. Ask yourself:
Mike Palmquist and Peter Connor. (1994-2020). Evaluating Sources. The WAC Clearinghouse. Colorado State University. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/writing/guides/.