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Evaluating Sources

This tutorial will help you evaluate and analyze sources critically in order to judge their appropriateness to your purpose.

What to look for: print

What type of material is it?

  • An encyclopedia entry provides a broad overview of a topic. It may be useful for getting started but may not provide the depth you need.
  • A book may cover many areas of your topic; you may only need the chapter that deals specifically with your angle.
  • A scholarly article is very specific in scope. It may support just one of your points in your argument.

Who is it for?

  • An encyclopedia entry is often written to provide an introduction to people new to the topic.
  • A scholarly article and many books are often written for other scholars.
  • A textbook, written for students, may not be the best source.


You want to make sure that your source is relevant to your research project or paper.

Relevance depends largely on CONTENT. Careful reading and note-taking are the best ways to determine a source's appropriateness for your topic.

Other points to consider:

  • Scope - Is the source a general overview of an entire topic or field? Or is it highly specific? Or is it something in between? The purpose of your writing assignment will help you decide the appropriate scope of the sources that you use.
  • Audience - Who is the intended audience of the piece? What is the educational level or political, or religious, or ideological orientation of the intended audience? 


Types of Sources

Different types of sources can be used for different reasons to support your research. It is important to know the components of each in order to effectively incorporate them.

Scholarly - Scholarly journals are generally peer reviewed, that is, their articles are read and evaluated by experts in the field under consideration. They generally include signed articles, a statement of the author's credentials or academic affiliation, and a bibliography. All of these attributes help make the source more reliable.

Popular - Popular magazines, such as Newsweek, are generally intended to reach a wide audience. The articles that appear in them are generally not peer reviewed and usually do not contain a bibliography. The reliability of popular sources is thus generally regarded to be below the level of scholarly sources

Primary - Primary sources in different disciplines mean different things.

In social science courses, primary sources refer to books or articles that provide original research or reports.

In history courses, primary sources refer to sources that were written during the time period (e.g., newspapers from the time, diaries, letters, etc)

In literature courses, this often refers to the work you are reading (a novel, poem, etc)

Secondary - These are books or articles that summarize, evaluate and report on primary research.

What to look for: web

  • *Most* information on the web is written for general audiences. So, ask yourself if the information is specific/academic enough.

  • Are you allowed to use websites?

  • If an article on the web references a research study, it might be better to find the original research study in a library database to lend more credibility to your paper.

  • Sometimes, only web sources will do.  Say you are asked to write about a company or organization. You would likely need to consult its website. Often, government reports and statistics are also best available via the web.