As you gather sources for your research, you’ll need to know how to assess the validity and reliability of the materials you find.
Keep in mind that the sources you find have all been put out there by groups, organizations, corporations, or individuals who have some motivation for getting this information to you. To be a good researcher, you need to learn how to assess the materials you find and determine their reliability—before deciding if you want to use them and, if so, how you want to use them.
Whether you are examining material in books, journals, magazines, newspapers, or websites, you want to consider several issues before deciding if and how to use the material you have found.
Does the source fit your needs and purpose?
Before you start amassing large amounts of research materials, think about the types of materials you will need to meet the specific requirements of your project.
Encyclopedias, general interest magazines (Time, Newsweek online), or online general news sites (CNN, MSNBC) are good places to begin your research to get an overview of your topic and the big questions associated with your particular project. But once you get to the paper itself, you may not want to use these for your main sources.
Focused Lay Materials
For a college-level research paper, you need to look for books, journal articles, and websites that are put out by organizations that do in-depth work for the general public on issues related to your topic. For example, an article on the melting of the polar icecaps in Time magazine offers you an overview of the issue. But such articles are generally written by non-scientists for a non-scientific audience that wants a general—not an in-depth—understanding of the issue. Although you’ll want to start with overview materials to give yourself the broad-stroke understanding of your topic, you’ll soon need to move to journals and websites in the field. For example, instead of looking at online stories on the icecaps from CNN, you should look at the materials at the website for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) or reports found at the website for the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). You also should look at some of the recent reports on the polar icecaps in Scientific American or The Ecologist.
If you already have a strong background in your topic area, you could venture into specialists’ books, journals, and websites. For example, only someone with a strong background in the field would be able to read and understand the papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences. Sources such as these are suitable for more advanced research paper assignments in upper-level courses, but you may encounter source requirements like these in freshman writing courses.
When you consider the quality of your sources, you should also consider the authorship and authority of your sources. Who wrote the material? Is that person or organization credible? The following will provide you with more details on authorship and authority to help you make good decisions about your sources.
Publisher-Provided Biographical Information
Often, books and scholarly journals will have a short biography of the author, outlining her or his credentials: education, publications, and experience in the field.
Look the biography over. Does the material there seem to suggest this writer has in-depth knowledge on the topic? What educational credentials does the writer have? If the writer is a trained economist but is writing on scientific matters, you need to keep that in mind as you look at her or his arguments. If the writer is associated with a specific conservative or liberal think tank, be aware that the arguments presented will probably reflect the ideology of that organization.
An ideological agenda does not mean that you have to avoid material. You simply need to read it with an awareness that the writer is writing from a specific point of view.
Minimal qualifications or qualifications that seem unrelated to the topic are a warning sign to you that you might want to reconsider using the material.
Outside Biographical Information
If no biography is attached to the work, an advanced search on Google or another search engine can be very helpful. You might also check hard copy or online sources such as Contemporary Authors, Book Review Index, or Biography index.
Many authors also have their own websites, listing information about their educational background, current and past research, and experience.
If you can find no or little information about a writer, be careful about using her or his material. You may want to consider replacing it altogether with a different source where the credentials of the writer are more readily available.
No Author Listed
While you want to be careful of sources without authors, that doesn’t mean you can’t use them. Often, websites won’t list an author. In that case, you need to evaluate the sponsoring organization. Look for the following information:
- Does the home page offer information about the organization?
- Is there a mission statement?
- Does the site offer any indication that the material on the webpage has been reviewed or checked by experts, often called a “peer-review process”?
- Does the site provide a link with an address, phone, and email?
Yes — If you find only some of the points from the bulleted list, try filling in the blanks with an internet search on the organization. Often, an encyclopedia — online or hard copy — provides background information on an organization. Try to find out a little bit about who funds it, who its audience is, and what its objectives are.
Again, discovering that an organization has specific ideological ties does not mean that you need to discard the material you have found there. You simply need to use it carefully and balance it with material from other sources.
No — If the answer to all of the bulleted questions is “no,” be careful!
A site that provides no information about its sponsors is a site that you should avoid using for your paper.
If no one is willing to put her or his name on the site and accept responsibility for the information, do you think you should trust that information for your research? Definitely not.
Where does the book / article / website get its information?
Look for a bibliography and / or footnotes. In a piece of writing that is making a case using data, historical or scientific references, or appeals to outside sources of any kind, those sources should be thoroughly documented. The writer should give you enough information to go and find those sources yourself and double-check that the materials are used accurately and fairly by the author.
Popular news magazines, such as Time or Newsweek online, will generally not have formal bibliographies or footnotes with their articles. The writers of these articles will usually identify their sources within their texts, referring to studies, officials, or other texts. These types of articles, though not considered academic, may be acceptable for some undergraduate college-level research papers. Check with your instructor to make sure that these types of materials are allowed as sources in your paper.
Examine the sources used by the author. Is the author depending heavily on just one or two sources for his or her entire argument? That’s a red flag for you. Is the author relying heavily on anonymous sources? There’s another red flag. Are the sources outdated? Another red flag.
If references to outside materials are missing or scant, you should treat this piece of writing with skepticism. Consider finding an alternative source with better documentation.
Is the material up-to-date?
The best research draws on the most current work in the field. That said, depending on the discipline, some work has a longer shelf life than others. For example, important articles in literature, art, and music often tend to be considered current for years, or even decades, after publication. Articles in the physical sciences, however, are usually considered outdated within a year or two (or even sooner) after publication.
In choosing your materials, you need to think about the argument you’re making and the field (discipline) within which you’re making it.
For example, if you’re arguing that climate change is indeed anthropogenic (human-caused), do you want to use articles published more than four or five years ago? No. Because the science has evolved very rapidly on that question, you need to depend most heavily on research published within the last year or two.
However, suppose you’re arguing that blues music evolved from the field songs of American slaves. In this case, you should not only look at recent writing on the topic (within the last five years), but also look at historical assessments of the relationship between blues and slavery from previous decades.
Timeliness and Websites
Scrutinize websites, in particular, for dates of posting or for the last time the site was updated. Some sites have been left up for months or years without the site’s owner returning to update or monitor the site. If sites appear to have no regular oversight, you should look for alternative materials for your paper.
Evaluating Online Sources
Friebolin, C. (2012, July 24). Can't lie on the internet [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/bufTna0WArc
You may have seen the commercial above making a point about how you have to be careful of what you find on the internet. This is true in life and in your efforts to find quality sources for academic papers.
The internet is particularly challenging because anyone can really post anything they want on the internet. At the same time, there are some really quality sources out there, such as online journals.
The important thing is to use skepticism, use the guidelines you have read about in this section of Research, and be sure to ask your professor if general web sources are even allowed. Sometimes, in an effort to have students steer clear of inaccurate information, professors will forbid general web sources for a paper, but this is not always the case. If you are allowed to go to the web to locate sources, just remember to check for suitability, credibility, and timeliness using the guidelines presented in this section.
Using the Evaluation Checklist will also give you some good guidelines to remember, no matter where you found your source.
The Source Evaluation Checklist found below should prove helpful as you evaluate your sources. There are two versions of the checklist. The first is a printable PDF file, and the second is an interactive PDF file. In some browsers, you may need to download or save this file to be able to utilize all of its functionality.
This material was developed by Excelsior Online Writing Lab (OWL) and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-4.0 International License. You are free to use, adapt, and/or share this material as long as you properly attribute. Please keep this information on materials you use, adapt, and/or share for attribution purposes.