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Critical Evaluation of Resources

As a researcher, you must sort through vast amounts of information from books, articles and websites to find what you need for your papers and projects.  How can you choose the best and most appropriate sources for your assignment?

Determine Suitability

Scope

  • Does the source provide a general overview of the topic?
  • Does the source focus on only one aspect of the topic?
  • Does the source cover the right time period for your topic?

Audience

  • Who is the source written for? University scholars, general public, high school students?
  • Is the material too technical or too clinical for your purposes? Do you want the article on childhood obesity written for physicians or the one written for social scientists?

Currency

  • When was the source published?
  • If the source is a website, when was it last updated?
  • Do you need the most current information on your subject, or are older publications acceptable?

Scholarly vs. Popular

Scholarly journals are often the best sources for university level research. Scholarly articles must be reviewed by experts (peer-review) before they are published. This ensures the quality of the content and academic value. You will find scholarly articles in library databases like Academic Search Complete, JSTOR, and Web of Science. Read more about the characteristics of scholarly articles.

Authority

  • Who is the author?
  • What are his or her academic credentials?
  • What else has this author written?
  • Sometimes information about the author is listed somewhere in the article. If not, try searching the author's name in a general web search engine like Google.

Documentation

  • Does the source include a biblography and/or footnotes?
  • Does the author pull from sources that represent multiple viewpoints?
  • If the source is a website, do the footnotes/references link out to supporting documents?

Objectivity

  • What point of view does the author represent?
  • Is the website sponsored by a company or organization that advocates a certain philosophy?
  • Is the article published in a magazine that has a particular editorial position?

Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary Sources are documents, images, or artifacts that provide original research or firsthand testimony/evidence of an event.
Examples: original scientific research, memoirs, diaries, photographs, first hand accounts in newspapers, speeches, etc.

Secondary Sources describe, interpret, analylze and evaluate primary sources.
Examples: histories, biographies, commentaries, critical or interpretive works, analysis, etc.

More information/examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

Websites

The same criteria for books and articles apply to evaluating websites, but the unfiltered, free-form nature of the web require extra vigilance when evaluating a site.

  • Is there an author listed for the site?
  • Is the site sponsored by a group or organization that advocates a certain philosophy? Is the site biased?
  • Is the site trying to sell you something?
  • Are statistics on the site up to date?
  • Are links on the site credible and authentic? Are they annotated? Are there dead links on the page?

UC Berkeley's Evaluating Web Pages for more information on critical analysis of websites.
Try using Alexa.com to look up information on any website about which you have questions.

Additional Works by an Author

The impact or importance of a particular source can sometimes be determined by how many other sources have cited it in their research. You can find this information by consulting a citation index (see links below). Sources located in Google Scholar will also show how often they have been cited.

Arts & Humanities Citation Index
Biosis Citation Index (Life Sciences)
Science Citation Index Expanded
Social Sciences Citation Index
Web of Science

More Helpful Links

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Or, Why It's a Good Idea to Evaluate Web Sources. From New Mexico State University, provides examples of both "good" and "bad" websites.
How to Critically Analyze Information Sources From Cornell University, this guide helps you determine the relevance and authority of a resource.
Distinguishing Scholarly Journals from Other Periodicals. From from Cornell University, this guide helps you determine whether a source is scholarly in nature.