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GEG 102: World Geography: Evaluating Sources

Evaluating Sources

While there are lots of good checklists we can follow to evaluate the reliability of a source, you need to also 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.

Expertise

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. 

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 of the basic checklists for evaluating sources that was mentioned above: 

Critique, Corroborate, Compare

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 a primary source from the historical period I'm interested in?
  • 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?
  • 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.
  • does it makes sense? Does the information hang together logically? Does it provide evidence for its claims that you find persuasive? 

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.

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