Your own essay or presentation is only as strong as the research behind it. For that reason, you will want to evaluate resources before quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing them. Specifically, you need to determine that the resources you find are both relevant and credible.
Relevant sources are those that contain information directly related to a particular topic. Too many students write poor essays because they "force" their sources. That is, instead of reading numerous sources and using only the relevant ones, they rely on sources that mention their topics but do not contain detailed material that supports their theses. An essay built on this kind of cursory research is not a coherent argument, but a hodge-podge of miscellaneous findings and observations. When you come across a resource, make sure that it contains material that will help you to explain your topic or support your thesis. If not, discard it.
Credible sources are those that contain authoritative discussions of your topic—that is, information that you and others are likely to accept and believe. Just as you would be more likely to believe statements made by honest eyewitnesses and respected experts, readers are more likely to believe research that comes from resources written by people with firsthand experience or special training in the field you are discussing. In academic writing, the kind you generally do in your classes, such research often comes from scholarly books and journals, resources written and edited by college professors and other experts.
Let's take a look at three different kinds of sources: books, articles, and Web sites. We then will consider ways that we can evaluate the credibility of these sources.
Books, of course, are fairly lengthy documents made available to readers by companies called publishers. Because reputable publishers want to protect their reputations, they generally are careful when selecting manuscripts to publish and then edit them thoroughly, making sure that the contents are accurate and well-founded. As a result, published books are generally credible. Still, you cannot assume that all books are credible and should use the questions near the bottom of this page to evaluate them before you use them in your research.
You can find articles—that is, relatively short treatments of issues—in journals, magazines, and newspapers:
Newspapers contain numerous articles written by many different authors, including members of the general public. Newspapers contain various news and feature articles, as well as editorials, which usually have a strong bias. Newspapers rarely contain scholarly material, but many newspaper articles quote research studies by scholars. People who write for newspapers are usually not academic researchers.
Magazines, sometimes called popular magazines, can be very useful to students; however, very few of the articles in them are written or edited by scholars. Magazine articles tend to provide an overview of current issues and research and omit some of the details, such as discussions of methodology. People who write for popular magazines are usually not academic researchers.
Scholarly Journals contain articles written by scholars for other scholars and are the most credible sources. They often are associated with universities or national organizations, such as the American Political Science Association. They contain articles that examine issues in depth; often the focus of a particular article is very narrow—one aspect of one short story, for example. Like manuscripts considered for publication by scholarly book publishers, articles in scholarly journals often go through the peer-review process.
The Internet is an international network of computers. Because many people post information on the Internet in the form of World Wide Web sites, it can be a useful research tool. Unlike most books and articles you might find in a library, however, many webpages do not undergo any kind of elaborate process of fact-checking and other forms of editing. Thus, you will want to be extra careful when evaluating Web sites and avoid using any of questionable credibility, especially those that do not include authors' names.
Questions to Use When Evaluating Sources
Here are some questions you can use to evaluate books, articles, and webpages:
1. Who is the author? What are the author's qualifications?
If you are researching the science of hydroponics, you should use a source written by a soil science researcher instead of one written by a gardening enthusiast.
2. When was the source published?
If you are researching current education trends in the United States, you would be better off with a source that was published within the last few years. In fact, some of your instructors may even prohibit you from using sources older than five years. However, if you are researching a humanities topic, historical event, or political period, then it may be appropriate to use older resources. Sometimes professors may require you to use primary resources published during an earlier time period.
3. Why was the source written?
Was the author trying to inform you of something? Was he or she trying to criticize something or change your opinion about an issue? You may find the answers to such questions in the introduction of a book, a book review, the opening paragraph of an article, or the "About Us" section of a Web site. For book reviews, see Amazon.com (www.amazon.com), Book Review Digest (Ref Z1219 .C95), Book Review Index (Ref Z1035.A1 B6), or the New York Times Index (Ask for help at the Serials Desk). Many electronic databases, such as Academic Search Premier, also contain book reviews.
4. What perspective does the source represent? Is there a bias?
If you were researching the current political climate in relation to environmental issues in the United States, you might come across numerous sources, such as Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals are Plundering the Country and High-jacking Our Democracy. This title was written by Robert Francis Kennedy, Jr., who is a lawyer and longtime environmentalist; however, he is also affiliated with the Democratic Party. Whenever a political or organizational affiliation is present, it is important to consider the possibility of bias. This book might be useful, but two main warning flags are that it is not a scholarly work and that political bias may be present. Web sites, in particular, are likely to be written by authors with strong biases.
5. Who published or sponsored the source?
Some publishers are more respected and have a peer-review process; that is, they have experts read manuscripts and determine whether they are credible and generally worthy of being published. For example, Oxford University Press is a respected academic publisher that requires academic works to be reviewed by experts in the appropriate fields. Most university presses, as well certain national organization presses, such as the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association, have some kind of peer-review process. On the other hand, Trafford Publishing of Oxford, England, publishes books by authors who pays its fees; there is probably little or no process by which an expert judges the validity of the material in the book. Thus, a book published by Oxford University Press is probably more credible than one published by Trafford. Similarly, articles published in scholarly journals and Web sites sponsored by universities or the United States government are generally more authoritative than articles published in many popular magazines and Web sites created by individuals.
6. Is the information reliable? Does the information fit with information found in other sources on the same topic? Is the information documented with references or other sources?
Did you find ninety-nine scholarly books that describe the Jewish Holocaust (1939-1945) in detail and one Web site arguing that the Holocaust did not occur? If so, then the argument in the Web site should strike you as suspect. NOTE: Academic libraries try to collect credible materials, but they also contain many items of questionable validity. One element that often suggests that a source is credible is the presence of a bibliography or a list of works cited. Such lists allow you to track down the information cited in the sources. Scholarly books and articles generally contain such lists.