While there are lots of good checklists we can follow to evaluate the reliability of a source, evaluating sources also must consider context. The same source might be inherently reliable 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.
Make sure you 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 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.
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've learned more about the topic. It's much easier to look at an opinion piece published online or in a newspaper to determine an author's point of view.
Sometimes what we think of as bias is more a 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.
When you aren't 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. For Web sources, follow links to information "about this site" or to an author's home page, or shorten the URL to everything up to the first slash to see what its parent page looks like. When in doubt, check with your instructor.
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.
Quite often you will be expected to use "scholarly" or "peer-reviewed" sources. How can you tell whether a source is scholarly? Look for these indicators.
Though many databases let you limit a search to scholarly articles, those limiters aren't foolproof. As an example, they will include book reviews, which are not reporting original research. Take a look at "Anatomy of a Scholarly Article" from North Carolina State University Library.
One of the reasons Gustavus requires at least one Writing in the Disciplines (WRITD) courses is because styles are different for in different majors. Scholarly sources do not all look the same. Scholarly articles in history are usually longer than those in physics journals. Articles in chemistry often have color illustrations and their journals carry advertising, but you won't find many color illustrations or advertisements in literary criticism journals. In sociology and psychology, articles almost always have abstracts, but you rarely see them in art history or religion articles. Though they look different, all fundamentally are the work of scholars reporting their findings to extend what we know about the world.
Here are a few external sources that will help you think through questions of evaluation and authority, as well as provide you with some of the basic checklists for evaluating sources that was mentioned above:
The term "primary source" is defined differently by different disciplines. In the humanities, a primary source is a historical document, such as a diary, memoir, a work of art, a news account published when an event was fresh - something from the historical period under examination, unfiltered by anyone else. In the sciences, a primary source is a scientist's write-up of their research that includes their methods and results, as opposed to science journalism or a summary of research (a "review article") that has been conducted to provide an overview of research on a given topic.
A secondary source is one that has already been analyzed by someone else. Moving even further from the unfiltered event is a teriary source such as a textbook or encyclopedia, that summarizes knowledge in general terms.
Using primary sources, whether in science or the humanities, helps a researcher get as close as possible to the subject under examination. Using primary sources can be a good way to point your reader to the raw materials of your ideas and provide an opportunity for you to do your own, original analysis.
To find historical primary sources, check out our guide to primary sources available in our library.