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Research Help:  Evaluate Sources

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Select the best: There is a lot of information out there, but not all information is equally important. Use your critical thinking skills and consider:
  • Who wrote/published the information? Is this a reliable source?
  • When was the material written? Is it current, a classic, or out-of-date?
  • Take a look at the bibliographies of reliable works or reference works. Is there someone or some work several sources are citing? If so, you may want to find and consider using that work.
Initial Appraisal
Content Analysis
Evaluate Information Found on the Internet

For a more thorough look at how to evaluate information, continue reading the following, which is excerpted and slightly revised from:
Ormondroyd, Joan, Michael Engle, and Tony Cosgrave. "Critically Analyzing Information Sources." (Cornell University Library)

INITIAL APPRAISAL

Author
  • What are the author's credentials--educational background, past writings, or experience --in this area?
  • Is the book or article written on a topic in the author's area of expertise? Who's Who in America (Ref Desk E663 W56), Biography Reference Bank, other print sources shelved in the Olin reference collection on Level 1, or the biographical information located in the publication itself can be used to determine the author's credentials. Ask a reference librarian at the Olin Reference Help Desk or at the relevant school or departmental library if you need assistance in finding biographical information
  • Has your instructor mentioned this author? Have you seen the author's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? Respected authors are cited frequently by other scholars. For this reason, always note those names that appear in many different sources
  • Is the author associated with an institution or organization? What are the basic values or goals of the organization or institution?
Date of Publication
  • When was the source published? For a book, look for the copyright date on the reverse of the title page.
  • Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic? Topic areas of continuing and rapid development, such as the sciences, demand more current information. On the other hand, topics in the humanities often require material that was written many years ago
Edition or Revision
  • Is this a first edition of this publication or not? Further editions indicate a source has been revised and updated to reflect changes in knowledge, include omissions, and harmonize with its intended reader's needs. Also, many printings or editions may indicate that the work has become a standard source in the area and is reliable. If you are using a Web source, do the pages indicate revision dates?
Publisher
  • Note the publisher. If the source is published by a university press, it is likely to be scholarly. Although the fact that the publisher is reputable does not necessarily guarantee quality, it does show that the publisher may have high regard for the source being published
Title of Journal
  • Is this a scholarly or a popular journal? This distinction is important because it indicates different levels of complexity in conveying ideas
CONTENT ANALYSIS

Having made an initial appraisal, you should now examine the body of the source. Read the preface to determine the author's intentions for the book. Scan the table of contents and the index to get a broad overview of the material it covers. Note whether bibliographies are included. Read the chapters that specifically address your topic. Scanning the table of contents of a journal or magazine issue is also useful. As with books, the presence and quality of a bibliography at the end of the article may reflect the care with which the authors have prepared their work.

Intended Audience
  • What type of audience is the author addressing? Is the publication aimed at a specialized or a general audience? Is this source too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your needs?
Objective Reasoning
  • Is the information covered fact, opinion, or propaganda? It is not always easy to separate fact from opinion. Facts can usually be verified; opinions, though they may be based on factual information, evolve from the interpretation of facts. Skilled writers can make you think their interpretations are facts.
  • Does the information appear to be valid and well-researched, or is it questionable and unsupported by evidence? Assumptions should be reasonable. Note errors or omissions.
  • Is the author's point of view objective and impartial? Is the language free of emotion-rousing words and bias?
Coverage
  • Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information? Does it extensively or marginally cover your topic? You should explore enough sources to obtain 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. Scholars use this primary material to help generate historical interpretations--a secondary source.
Writing Style
  • Is the publication 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?
Evaluative Reviews
  • Locate critical reviews of books in a reviewing source, such as Book Review Index, Book Review Digest (both sources are shelved in the Reference collection on Level 2), or a source suggested by a reference librarian. Is the review positive? Is the book under review considered a valuable contribution to the field? Does the reviewer mention 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 or attributes of the book or has it aroused controversy among the critics?
Learning how to quickly determine the relevance and authority of a given resource for your research is one of the core skills of the research process.



EVALUATE INFORMATION FOUND ON THE INTERNET

Since anyone can, and probably will, put anything on the Internet, it is necessary first to evaluate the material before using it for academic purposes. On the Internet it is often difficult to tell

  • what something is
  • where it came from
  • when it was created
  • who the author is
  • whether the publication is the original, a revision, plagiarized, or altered by others
  • whether it has been "filtered" or reviewed by peers, an editor, a refereeing process, or by libraries through the collection development process.
Because something appears in electronic form on the Internet, it is not inherently better material than what is found in print sources. In fact, quite the contrary all too often is true. Research Guides are lists of web sites in various subject areas which have been evaluated and selected by Washington University subject librarians. Also, WorldCat is a database which can lead you to internet resources by limiting the type of materials searched to "Internet Resources," but it is best to evaluate any website before using it for academic purposes.

Points to consider when evaluating information found on the Internet:

Author
  • Who is the author?
  • Is the author the original creator of the information?
  • Is the author an expert on the topic?
Content

  • How does the information compare with that in other sources in the field?
Point of View

  • Does the author have a bias?
  • Is the author affiliated with particular organizations, institutions, or associations?
  • Does the organization supporting the site have a particular point of view?
  • Does the author's affiliation with this particular institution appear to bias the information?
  • When was it written or last updated?
Purpose

  • To what audience is the author writing? Is this reflected in the writing style, vocabulary, or tone?
  • Does the material inform? Explain? Persuade?
  • Is there sufficient material to support it?
  • What conclusions are drawn?
The web resource evaluation advice above was adapted from:
Brandt, D. Scott. "Why We Need to Evaluate What We Find on the Internet" (Purdue University Library) and other materials.
For further information on evaluating web resources, some other good sources are:
Beck, Susan E. "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Or Why It's a Good Idea to Evaluate Web Sources" (New Mexico State University Library),
and
Internet Detective (U.of Bristol and Manchester Metropolitan U.)

Choose topic | Find background info | Research strategy | Find books | Find articles | Find reference sources
Find web sites | Obtain materials not at WUStL | Evaluate sources | Cite sources