Evaluating Sources Handout

Finding Scholarly Sources

In today's world, information is abundant. It is crucial that you evaluate all sources you plan to use in your research for relevance and reliability. First and foremost, you must understand the difference between scholarly sources and non-scholarly sources.

Scholarly sources are those that have been approved or acknowledged as such by the author's or publisher's peers in the field. "Peer reviewed" sources are considered good secondary sources of evidence and information from which students and colleagues might build their own knowledge. The content is acknowledged as well-researched and appropriate for reference in the academic world. Examples of scholarly sources are Journal of American History, Mississippi Quarterly, and Journal of Social Science Research.

A non-scholarly source, on the other hand, does not share these characteristics or has not been through an academic screening process, and therefore is considered weak or questionable as a secondary source. Not all non-scholarly sources are suspect; popular publications such as Time and National Geographic are non-scholarly. Ironically, this situation leads to more difficulty in evaluating sources because there is not always a stark contrast between scholarly and non-scholarly sources at first glance.

To further complicate matters, sometimes non-scholarly or popular sources are perfectly acceptable as primary sources, or as objects of study, as opposed to sources of evidence to support a claim. For example, someone writing a paper on the impact of changing technology upon interior decorating might use Better Homes and Gardens as a primary source to show what was popular during a given period in history.

Of course, the question remains.....

How Can I Tell If A Potential Source Is Scholarly?

While there are no hard and fast rules for determining whether or not a source is scholarly, there are some common features found in scholarly works that "non-scholarly" sources do not share. Below are some tips on finding scholarly periodicals, books, and Web sites.

NOTE: The following advice is only a guide. Sources must be judged on an individual basis. Likewise, non-scholarly sources are acceptable as sources in certain situations (e.g., as an example to illustrate a point, as a primary source).

Periodicals

Periodicals are publications that are ongoing, released at regular intervals, or periodically, hence the name. Newspapers, magazines (both online and in print), and journals are all periodicals. Scholarly periodicals are most often journals.

Here are a few things to check when evaluating a journal or other periodical for scholarliness:

Books

Scholarly books share many of the characteristics seen in scholarly journals. While books might seem like a "safer" medium, especially if you find them in a library, you still need to inspect the origins and features of any book before using it as a source in scholarly research.

Here are some of the things you should check on when considering a book as a source:

Web Sites

Web sites are probably the sources most commonly misused by students. There are many good, scholarly Web sites available that provide excellent content, but there are many more questionable if not totally bogus sites clogging the Web that make finding the reputable ones a task requiring great scrutiny. The ease with which anyone (from a 4-year-old to a renowned historian to a con-artist) can publish written and multi-media information to the Web, combined with the ease of access to this information is problematic, because the convenience and quantity of information available make it tempting to use as a research tool.

So, how can you sort the scholarly material from the rest on the Web? It is not always clear-cut, and looks can be deceiving. Still, there are a few things you should certainly look at before including a Web source in your research:

 Source Evaluation Exercise

So you have a stack of scholarly sources that have something to do with your topic. How do you decide whether or not each source is going to be relevant to your argument? Where in your paper will this source come in handy, if at all? Are all of your sources approaching your topic from the same perspective, or do you have necessary variety of viewpoints, both in terms of argument and disciplinary perspectives?

The following exercise is a handy tool to help you judge whether and how a source might be useful in your research by thinking critically about its content and thesis. The exercise will help in determining both relevance and reliability.

  1. Read as a believer: make note of the source's main argument (thesis/focus), major evidence, structure of argument, etc. Write this down! This is an essential part of your preliminary note-taking.
  2. Read as a doubter: make note of any gaps in the source's argument, leaps of logic, misuse of or missing evidence, questionable conclusions, etc. Again, write this down. You will want to come back to your initial assessment and use it as a starting point for your analysis if and when you decide to use the source in your paper.
  3. Analyze the source in terms of form and type: make note of what category or type of source it is, its contextual background, and any pitfalls these observations might suggest to you, such as cultural codes or conventions which influence its form and content and that you will have to be aware of in order to understand the source completely, details about its origin or composition that might influence its reliability, idiosyncratic features of its structure or style, etc.
  4. State why this source might prove a strong one for use in your writing assignment.
  5. State any reasons why you might want to be wary when using this source (i.e., what are its limits in terms of what we can expect it to provide in the way of data or evidence?).