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English 1010 Research Guide: Evaluating Sources

This guide is intended to help students in ENGL 1010 identify and learn how to get started using library databases for academic research. The library catalog and some of our most popular multidisciplinary databases are covered.

A Critical Skill

Knowing how to find information is only half the battle.  Once you have a list of results - whether it is webpages, books, videos or magazine articles - being able to pick the ones that will effectively and efficiently answer your research question is the skill you will need next.

Evaluating Web Sites

There are a few things you should consider when evaluating a website's credibility that you normally don't worry about with books and articles:

Spelling and Grammar

  • If a site is full of typos, don't use it as a source.

Dead Links

  • If many links on the website lead nowhere, no one is making an effort to maintain the site.

Type of Website

  • .edu = educational institution, like a university’s website
  • .gov = United States government website
  • .org = organizational website, often for a non-profit organization but not always
  • .com & .net  = commercial website and most likely the least credible of the websites

You Choose

Your search of the library catalog brought up the following 5 books, which one looks like it best addresses your topic of Bioterrorism and Homeland Security?

You Choose
Food Supply Protection and Homeland Security: 1 votes (9.09%)
Homeland Security and Emergency Medical Response: 0 votes (0%)
Biosecurity and Bioterrorism : Containing and Preventing Biological Threats: 6 votes (54.55%)
Threats to homeland Security : An All-Hazards Perspective: 3 votes (27.27%)
Homeland Security and Terrorism : Readings and Interpretations: 1 votes (9.09%)
Total Votes: 11

Questions and Answers

The first thing we are going to talk about are criteria.  What are the elements on which we are going to judge our sources?  It may help to think like a reporter and ask yourself Who, What, Why, When, and Where?

  • Who wrote it?
    What authority does this person or organization have to speak on this topic? Are they open about who they are? Is their name or affiliation available?
  • What are they saying?
    How reliable is this information? Is it backed up with facts, research, citations? How does it compare with other things you have read on the topic?
  • Why are they writing this? 
    ​Is the information objective or is there any evident bias? Are they attempting to influence you to take some particular action (i.e., buy something, vote a particular way, etc)? Some bias is obvious, some is subtle. Not all bias is inherently bad, but you need to be able to identify it so that you can ask important questions about what they may not be saying and seek out further information that they may not provide.
  • When was it written?
    Is the information current? Remember, "old" is a relative term here depending on your topic and how fast things change in that area. News may become old in days or weeks, the latest discoveries in genetics may be old in a couple of years, an essay on a historical topic or piece of literature may have a shelf life of decades.
  • Where does this fit into my paper? 
    Even a book or article that is current, authoritative, reliable and unbiased may not be the best choice for you if it simply fails to answer your research question. Even though you may really like it, trying to squeeze something into your paper that doesn't really fit will probably cost you more effort than just finding a more appropriate source. Plus you run the risk of looking unfocused and disorganized in your final product.

Should I Use This Source?

After you find a source, you still need to decide whether you want to use it in your assignment. Ask yourself the following questions before you commit to reading a full book or article:

 How current is the source? If your topic requires up to date information, you need to pay careful attention to the date of publication.

  • Articles - Check the date of the journal (in the database where you found the article or at the top or bottom of the full text article)
  • Books - Check the copyright date (in the catalog, or on the back of the title page)
  • Websites - Check for "Last Updated" on web pages or for a "Posted" date at the beginning or end of online articles and blog posts

 Who is the author? Look for a brief biography of the person or a description of the organization. Most scholarly articles will simply identify the universities where the authors work.

 How accurate is the source? Are they citing their sources? Look for bibliographies or footnotes. On websites there may also be links to their sources - dead links are a bad sign.

 How relevant is the source? Does the information actually fit your topic or would you be forcing it to work? Quickly read these sections to determine this:

  • Articles - Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion
  • Books - Table of Contents, First and Last paragraphs of chapters which seem useful

How Credible is This Source?

The Continuum of Credibility

Can you trust the information in the sources you located during your research? How skeptical should you be of the source and its author?