While there are lots of good checklists we can follow to evaluate the reliability of a source, you need to also consider context. A source might be inherently reliable in terms of content, but while it might be appropriate for one project, it might not work for another. Use the resources and suggestions on this page to further explore how to choose and evaluate sources to best fit your projects.
Keep sight of your focus as it evolves and deepens. You don't need to find all of the available sources, but you do want good ones that answer the questions you have posed for yourself and that serve as convincing evidence for your reader. Your sources are your "expert witnesses" - so make sure you find sources written by experts on your topic.
In academic scholarship, experts tend to be scholars in the field. They have studied the field extensively, have advanced degrees, and are writing for other experts in the field. Expertise looks different in different contexts, however. Talk with your professor or a librarian about your sources for more help.
We are often asked to look for "bias" in an author's argument. While this is a valid concern, we often can't determine whether or not an academic source is biased until we know more about the topic. Sometimes what we think of as bias is really point of view. Every source is written by a particular individual who has been influenced by their training, circumstances and context. This applies to anything anyone writes. This guide, for instance, was written by one librarian with a particular set of training and experiences and viewpoints about how to best teach research skills to undergraduates!
To determine if a source is biased, especially a scholarly one, we need to know enough about the topic to understand various approaches experts take when investigating the topic. This only comes after we've immersed ourselves in the research conversation surrounding our topic, including reading what other experts say about our source. This takes time and we don't often reach this point during a semester-long inquiry. That's fine. The point is that while we should be aware of possible bias, we also shouldn't let our knee-jerk reaction to bias actually bias us against potential sources.
The bottom line is to keep an open mind when looking at sources and use the information on this page to determine how appropriate a source is for your research. You can always ask a librarian for help, too!
As you search, keep track of the most promising sources and then look at them closely, asking yourself these questions:
Who wrote it? A journalist? An academic scholar? A person who has expertise of some sort?
When was it written? What effect does its age or currency have on its value to you? Is it too dated? Is it a primary source from the historical period I'm interested in?
Why was it written? What audience did the author have in mind? What are they trying to do with this document - persuade, inform, further our knowledge by publishing new research findings?
Where did they get their information? What evidence do they present? Do they explain the sources of their information?
How did they arrive at their conclusions? Did they use appropriate methods to get there? Did they misunderstand anything or leave something important out?
What have other people said about this topic? How does this source fit in with the larger conversation? What differences and agreements do I see between the sources I have gathered for this research project?
Is it relevant? Does this source help me accomplish my task? Does the information hang together logically? Does it provide evidence for its claims that you find persuasive?
Is it authoritative? Are there clues that tell me why I (and my reader) should rely on this source? 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.)
Here are a few external sources that will help you think through questions of evaluation and authority, as well as provide you with some basic checklists for evaluating sources: