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A Guide to Physics: Evaluating Sources

Evaluating Sources

While there are lots of good checklists 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.

Expertise

You don't need to find all available sources, but you do want good ones that answer the questions you have posed 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.

A Word about Bias

We are trained to look for "bias" in an author's argument. While this is a valid question, 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.

To determine if a source is biased, especially a scholarly one, you need to know enough about the topic to understand various approaches experts take when investigating the topic. This only comes after you've immersed yourself in the research conversation surrounding your topic, including what other experts say. This takes time and you don't often reach this point during a semester-long inquiry. That's fine. The point is that while you should be aware of possible bias, don't let a knee-jerk reaction to bias actually bias you 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!

Investigate Sources

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? Is it too dated? Is it a primary source from the historical period you're interested in?

Why was it written? What is the intended audience? Is the document meant to persuade, inform, or 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? 

Is it relevant? Does this source help you accomplish your task? Does it provide evidence for its claims that you find persuasive? 

Evaluating Sources

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: 

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