How do you know if an information source is a good one? Whether you're looking at a book, journal article, or web site, learning how to determine the relevance and authority of resources is an important part of the research process. Here are some questions to ask when reading a book or journal:
Who is the Author?
What are the author's credentials - education, publications, experience - in this area? Has your instructor mentioned this author? Have you seen this author's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? TIP: Watch out for "authorities" reporting on information outside their area of expertise, and be aware of experts with an obvious bias.
When was the Material Published?
Is this source current or out-of-date for your topic? Some areas demand current information, while sometimes earlier viewpoints are needed.
Which Edition is This?
Is this a first edition? Later editions indicate that a source has been revised and updated to reflect changes in knowledge. Many printings or editions may indicate that this book has become a standard source in its field.
Who is the Publisher?
Certain publishing houses are noted for issuing quality work in a given field (for example, Island Press in Environmental Sciences, or Chessler for Mountaineering). University Press editions are most likely academic in scope.
Journal vs. Magazine
Generally, magazines (Time, Psychology Today) do not require extensive prior knowledge of a topic, and are written for a general audience. Scholarly journals (Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Mountaineering and Its Literature) assume a higher level of reader sophistication, and present arguments of evidence intended to validate new knowledge in the field. TIP: Avoid accepting an author's authority based on scholarly tone; question!
Who is the author addressing? Is the publication aimed at a specialized or general audience? Is this source too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your needs?
Is the information fact, opinion, or propaganda? It's not always easy to tell! Facts can usually be verified; opinions, even if based on factual data, are interpretations of the facts.
Does the information appear to be valid and well-researched, or is it questionable and unsupported by evidence? Do assumptions seem reasonable? Does it seem that questions are left unanswered or omitted? TIP: Check the cited references to see where the author got his information.
Does the work update other sources, substantiate other sources, or contribute new information? Try to use a variety of sources to include many viewpoints, and be aware of current research which may apply to dated material.
- Primary sources are written during the period in question, providing first-hand knowledge of the subject. A primary source would be an original document, such as the U.S. Constitution, or the personal diary or letters of an historical figure.
- Secondary sources are based on primary sources, but may be written after the period. They provide the author's analysis and perspective on the topic.
- Tertiary sources include encyclopedia articles, derived from secondary sources.
Is the work organized logically? Are the main points presented clearly? Is the text easy to read? Is the author too repetitive, or pedantic?
Look Inside the Book (Content Analysis...)
TIPS: Read the Preface of a book to learn the author's intentions. Scan the Table of Contents and the Index for an overview of the topics covered. Note whether Bibliographies or References are included.
Evaluating Online Sites: Who? What? When? How?
Web pages can sure look impressive - professional, dazzling, full of information, and extremely entertaining. When you need to find solid, accurate information, however, the look of the page is not as important as the content... and it's important to learn how to evaluate that content. The Basics:
Who/what organization is responsible for the site? Can you find the author's qualifications? Can you verify the information elsewhere?
Can you tell the purpose of the page? Is it to inform? To explain? To persuade? To sell? To entertain? Is there potential for bias? Are any ads on the page distinct from informational content? Is the tone scholarly, or popular?
There should be dates on a web page! Is there a publication date? Last revision date? Date page was published on the web? Date the information was gathered?
Are sources listed? Are there grammatical or spelling errors? Can you verify the information elsewhere? Do the links work?
Is it a full-text document, summary, or abstract? How in-depth is the material? Are there different authorities for different content areas? What time period is covered?
Can you connect to the site easily? Is the information presented in a clean, clear format? Are the navigation aids helpful? Are additional software programs or hardware needed?
And Some Other Tips:
The web address (URL) provides a clue to the type of information you might find at a site. For example, sites ending with:
- .com are commercial, business, for-profit sites. Expect that these people want to sell you something!
- .edu sites means the information is coming from an educational institution (but is it from an expert, or a student's paper?)
- .gov denotes a government site (use your critical thinking skills!)
.org usually means the information is coming from a non-profit or professional organization (what is their bias?)
Are these sites for real? Is the information true? It's not always easy to tell...
Use Snopes to verify questionable web sites, suspected hoaxes, and "Urgent" emails