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Research Paper Sources Reliability

Overview

You will learn:

  • What to look for when evaluating a source you’re considering in your research
  • What evaluative questions to ask
  • How to identify primary and secondary sources

When looking for sources–particularly websites–think about whether or not they are reliable. You want your paper to contain sources written by unbiased and professional experts, not businessmen with commercial interests.

Ask yourself the following questions to help you determine if a source is reliable:

Author

  • Who is providing the information?
  • What do you know about the author and their credentials?
  • Are they an expert?
  • Can you find out more and contact them?
  • Search for author or publisher in search engine. Has the author written several publications on the topic?
  • Have other credible people referenced this source?

Publisher

  • Is there a sponsor or affiliation?
  • Who is linking to the page?
  • Do they take responsibility for the content?
  • Websites: Are credible sites linking to this page?

Bias

  • Is the language free of emotion?
  • Does the organization or author suggest there may be bias? Does bias make sense in relations to your argument?
  • Is the purpose of the website to inform or to persuade towards a certain agenda?
  • Are there ads? Are they trying to make money?
  • Why did they write the article?
  • Websites: Is the site a content farm? A content farm is a site whose content has been generated by teams of freelancers who write large amounts of low-quality text to raise the site’s search engine rankings.

Citations

  • Copy and paste a sentence into Google to see if the text can be found elsewhere.
  • (Website) Are there links to related sites? Are they organized?
  • Are there citations or a bibliography provided? Do they cite their sources?

Accuracy

  • Is the data verifiable and accurate?
  • Is the source comprehensive?

Currency

  • When was the source last updated?
  • Does the source have a date?

Design

  • Does the source appear professional?
  • Does it seem like current design?

Reproduced

  • Was it reproduced? If so, from where? Type a sentence in Google to verify.
  • If it was reproduced, was it done so with permission? Copyright/disclaimer included?

Keep in mind that everything is written from a particular social, cultural, and political perspective. Realize that some publications tend to be ‘slanted’ towards a certain viewpoint. For example, the CATO Institute is known for being libertarian, while The Nation is known to lean left. Keep these slants in mind when you are researching.

For websites, use EasyBib’s Website Evaluation tool to help you through this process. The tool guides you step-by-step through 6 criteria points so you can determine whether or not a website is credible.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

  • Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event or time-period. They can also be results of experiments or research. Primary sources must be factual not interpretive. Here are some examples of primary sources:
    • Diaries, journals, letters
    • Works of art
    • Newspaper or magazine accounts from the time period
    • Photographs, maps, postcards
    • Songs, plays
  • Secondary sources analyze and interpret primary sources. These can be second-hand accounts of events, or interpretations of sources. Here are some examples of secondary sources:
    • Biographies
    • Literary criticisms, book reviews
    • Interpretive newspaper articles
    • Analysis of scientific experiments

Conclusion

Effectively evaluating information is a skill that you can use for the rest of your life no matter what you do. Always be smart about the information you read and refer to.

You learned:

  • That when evaluating any source, there are several factors to consider
  • What questions you should ask when evaluating a source

Additional Resources

Remember, your use of sources is a means of supporting the argument you make. This means that the sources you reference need to be credible and authoritative. How do you know that your sources are of value? Ask yourself the following questions:

Where was the source published?

  • Is it in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal (i.e. an article that is evaluated by other experts in the field) or published by a university press, professional society, or scientific publisher (all of which also operate peer-review processes)? These texts will have scholarly credibility.
  • Was the source published on-line? This is not necessarily bad, but it will depend on who published it, why it was published, and how you intend to use the material. For example, there are on-line journals that utilize peer-review thus providing greater credibility to the publication. But there are many articles published under the guise of scholarly work, by individuals claiming expertise but which are of highly questionable credibility. If you have doubts about an on-line source, you can discuss it with your instructor or TA and you can elect not to use it.

Who wrote it?

  • You can undertake brief on-line research into the author. Is the author affiliated with a university or another institution? What else has the author written? Citation databases will also tell you the number of times this source has been cited by other academics, giving you further insight into its credibility.

Is the piece timely and appropriate for its field?

  • In some disciplines, material can become outdated very swiftly. In others, texts can continue to be considered valuable for longer. You should search for additional texts on the topic to find related sources, sources in which this source is cited, and sources that cite this source in order to get a stronger picture of its intellectual relevance and value.

For whom is the source written?

  • Is the intended audience a scholarly one? If so, it should have a clear bibliography that you will also be able to consult for further sources.

Will you use the source as a primary or secondary text?

  • If the material does not measure up to expected standards of scholarly work, it may still be of use to you. But as a primary text – that is to say, a text that needs to be analyzed – rather than a secondary text – which is a text that might support your argument or provide a theoretical framework for your analysis, for example.

For further guidance, Anice Mills, the Undergraduate Services Librarian, in 205 Butler Library, can help you evaluate online sources for credibility.

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