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 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:
- Frequency of Publication. A scholarly journal will usually have a longer period between volumes. In other words, it will be released quarterly, twice a year, or annually. If a journal or magazine is released more frequently than quarterly, you need to be extra careful. If a journal editor can produce a full volume every month, there might not be much time for selectivity, peer review, and revisions to articles, making the journal a less rigorously peer-reviewed source.
- Peer Review. A scholarly journal has a panel of qualified persons with credentials in the discipline(s) covered by the journal. This panel reads articles submitted by individuals, decides whether the article is suitable for publication, and orders any revisions the author must make before the article is published.
- Editors and Publishers. The editor(s) and publisher of a scholarly periodical matter. Look to see who these entities are. Universities and professional associations are among the most common publishers of scholarly journals. If you are unfamiliar with the publisher, do a little research to see who they are and what they do. If you come across a journal published by the Society for the Promotion of Treehouse Living, you may want to assume that the articles advocate a particular agenda.
- Articles have citations and a reference list. Articles in a scholarly journal are written by those who have researched and cited other scholars to develop their arguments. Flip through a few articles and check the reference lists (i.e., Works Cited page). Does there appear to be a fairly thorough and balanced bibliography?
- A Variety of Perspectives. A scholary source will consider opposing and alternate viewpoints on various issues. This quality can be hard to confirm with a single issue, but if you get a feeling after several articles that this journal has an axe to grind, be wary.
- If you have doubts about the legitimacy of a source, trust your gut. Discuss your concerns with a librarian - he or she will be glad you took the time to ask.
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:
- Publisher. There are many different presses that publish books. If an academic press (e.g., Univeristy of North Carolina Press, Yale University Press) is the publisher, chances are you have a scholarly book in your hand, especially if it meets the rest of the criteria listed here. If another familiar press, large or small, published the book (e.g., Penguin, Sage Publications) that is also a good sign. If the publisher seems to be an association, take the time to find out a little about that association. Chances are it is a professional organization or an association of colleagues with similar professional interests; however, certain presses exist to promote a particular perspective or world view. If you do a minimal amount of homework on your publisher, you should be fine.
- Author. Read the "About the author" page. If the author has an advanced degree in the field of the book's subject (or a closely related field), that is a good start. Consider any university or professional association affiliations that the author might have.
- Introduction. Always read the introduction to a book you are considering as a source. The introduction will help to reveal the author's objective in writing the book as well as provide a summary of the content.
- Citations and References. Just as in journal articles, books that contain references to and citations of other scholarly works and primary sources are usually more likely to be scholarly in content.
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:
- Author, Author, Author. Find out who (person(s) or organization) authored the material on the Web site. Simply having a ".edu" or ".org" extension on the URL address is no longer enough to pass a site as scholarly (e.g., many students have Web space at a university, and their personal pages will end in ".edu"). The author is not always easy to find, but fortunately, scholarly sources usually make the author very apparent. A good place to start is the "About Us" link located on many sites. If you cannot find one, try for a "Contact Us" link. Often the contact information can clue you in to who is authoring the site. Feel free to contact them if you have questions. If you cannot find any authoring information, take that as a red flag. In short, if you cannot find out who wrote it, or the author does not explain his or her background and credentials, do not use the source.
- Is the information current? While books and journals come with publishing dates attached, Web sites often do not indicate when a piece was written. Again, scholarly Web sites tend to pay attention to currency, so usually you can find a date on articles or other media. Also, check to see when the site was last updated. This information is typically found at the bottom of the page. Another clue is the date of copyright on the material. If Phillys Offer's essay on the investment banking business is copyrighted 2003, you might want to rethink its usefulness for your paper on mortgage-backed securities.
- Again, if you are unsure of a Web source's credentials, do not trust it as a source.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- State why this source might prove a strong one for use in your writing assignment.
- 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?).