As you search, keep track of the most promising sources and then look at them closely, asking yourself these questions.
- Is it relevant? Does this source help me accomplish my task?
- Is it timely? Is it too dated?
- Is it written for an appropriate audience? Has it repackaged information in a way that oversimplifies it? Will my reader expect more technical or scholarly information than this? (Length also is a clue here - a scholarly article rarely is under 10 pages long.)
- Is it authoritative? Are there clues that tell me why I (and my reader) should rely on this source? Who is the author and what are her/his credientials? (You might Google the author's name to fine some of this information if it is not provided.) What sources are used by the author to support her/his claims (and are there footnoes)? Why does the author present this information, and does that purpose suggest a particular bias? Does it analyze dispassionately - or advocate for a particular stance? (Advocacy isn't bad - but you may have to see how others approach the issues.)
- Does it makes sense? Does the information hang together logically? Does it provide evidence for its claims that you find persuasive?
When you are not an expert, it may seem daunting to evaluate the work others have published, but a book's table of contents or an article's opening paragraphs will help establish relevance. The language it is written in will help you decide if it is scholarly enough and yet not too highly technical for your purposes. Information given about the author might help you decide how much an authority he or she is.
Compare: In addition to looking at the quality of individual sources, compare them so that you can see where there are differences and conflicts. Even if you are heading toward a particular conclusion, you want to discuss alternative perspectives so your reader gets the big picture.
Corroborate: If you feel as if you're going out on a limb, try to corroborate the information you want to use in another source. A reference librarian can help you do that.