Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Evaluating Sources

Chapter 2: Section 3, Lesson 7

Academic papers and writing projects require the most relevant and authoritative sources you can find, but how do you know what the best sources are? Similarly, academic sources like journal articles and academic monographs (works on narrow, specialized topics) provide valuable, detailed information, but how can you tell whether the source you've found is a reliable one?

The Internet has changed how people perceive the credibility of sources; you need to be more aware than ever of the quality of your research. You’ll find a lot of resources in an online search: there are many highly credible academic blogs, but you’ll also find many journals that are not peer-reviewed; you’ll find biased and personal websites as well as websites that are professionally researched, edited, and published. The boundaries between research methods—like using the library, doing field research, and using the Internet—have broken down. Using the library now often means using the Internet to access the library, and conducting an interview often means using email to send the questions and gather answers. In order to effectively evaluate sources, you should first understand two important types of sources.

Types of Sources
Whether you find your source in print, online, or in a different medium, it will fall into one of two basic types—primary or secondary.

Primary Sources
A primary source is a document, object, communication, or other material from the time period or issue you’re studying. If you conduct field research, the information you gather is from a primary source. Any results of observations, surveys, or interviews are primary data, whether those surveys and interviews took place in person, by email, or by other electronic means. If you conduct an experiment in a biology or psychology class, the resulting data are primary. If you conduct a literary study, then the primary source is the piece of literature that you need to research. Primary sources include historical documents as well as physical objects such as artifacts.

Secondary Sources
In contrast, secondary sources are ones that comment on, analyze, critique, or reflect on primary sources. Secondary sources often include books about your subject, journal articles, blog entries, websites, newspaper articles, and social media commentary about a topic you’re researching. A secondary source may come from any number of publications discussing your topic.

Distinguishing Types
Both primary sources and secondary sources can be relevant to and necessary for a given research topic. Depending on your assignment, the topic you’re researching, and the requirements of your instructor, you might use only primary sources, only secondary sources, or a mix of both.

It can be easy to confuse the two types of sources, especially given the way the Internet has challenged the traditional boundaries mentioned above. A source that is “secondary” for one assignment can be “primary” for another assignment.

For example, if you were researching the Iraq War, first-hand reports from Iraq by citizens and soldiers would be primary sources, while articles, blog posts, and social media posts about the war from commentators, writers, and others would likely be secondary sources. However, if you were researching social media responses to the Iraq War, the social media posts themselves would be primary sources; newspaper articles about social media would be secondary sources.

If you’re confused as to whether your source is primary or secondary, try to identify its relationship to your topic. Is it a source that originates from the time period or issue you’re researching (that is, a primary source), or is it a derivative source that comments on, critiques, or analyzes the primary source (that is, a secondary source)?

Evaluating Sources
When conducting research, you should choose the best sources to use in the paper. The following list provides just a few of the criteria you can use to help you evaluate and choose sources:

Think about whether you actually need the information. Don’t use a source simply to lengthen your bibliography or essay. Every source should be both important to and necessary for your paper.

How is the author of the source identified? What connection does he or she have to the material? For example, does the author have a degree in the field in which he or she is writing? How extensively has he or she published in this area? If the source is not academic, what personal or professional connections does the author have to the topic? Look for the author’s biography or credentials in the source itself, or search for the author’s name online.

Credibility deals with whether the source is believable or trustworthy. What stated or unstated political, corporate, social, or ethical goals does the author carry? Separate from the author, who is hosting, publishing, or promoting the source and why? How might these factors, motivations, and goals affect the source’s credibility? How trustworthy is the author? Do there appear to be obvious or ambiguous omissions or even errors?

Publication Date
Books, journal articles, magazine editorials, field research, and websites often indicate a publication date. In electronic sources, the publication date can be confused with other dates, such as dates regarding the last time a website was docs. A blog will often display many dates—dates for individual blog entries, comments, replies, etc. Use the date that is most relevant to the item you’re considering. If a book lists multiple dates on its copyright page, the most recent date is usually the publication date for that edition. On a blog post, look for the date associated with the specific entry you’re reading. Note that undated sources aren’t necessarily worthless. Limited edition publications, primary sources, and historical material might be undated but still very valuable based on other criteria, such as author or relevance, especially if the date or time period can be guessed. Think twice about using undated sources with other warning signs, though. Such sources might include undated personal websites containing general information; anonymous, undated blog comments; and undated social media posts that can’t be traced to a specific user or person.

Evaluating the audience is a matter of considering for whom the source, information, or item was published, photographed, written, or compiled. Who did the author, creator or publisher hope would read or access this material? What is the author’s agenda or bias? For example, is the author hoping to influence a specific demographic, person, organization or group of people? Or is the author explicitly or implicitly advocating for a specific change of some kind, whether social, economic, or political? The same questions can be asked of the publisher, not just the author.

Length is an important factor for any source, but it’s not a defining one. An academic journal article can provide detailed information about a topic. An academic or professional blog can provide a concise opinion from a scholar in the field in less than a few hundred words. The amount and type of information your assignments require will help you determine which sources to use.

Think About It

  • What kind of research will you use—secondary sources, or primary sources, or both?
  • Where will you find these sources?
  • How will you know whether your sources are credible?

Evaluating your sources requires that you understand the type of source and that you think about its credibility based on at least some of the criteria discussed above.