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How to evaluate information you obtain from the web and other sources
- What are the author's credentials--educational background, past
writings, or experience--in this area? Is the book or article written
on a topic in the author's area of expertise?
- Has your instructor mentioned this author? Have you seen
the author's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? Respected
authors are cited frequently by other scholars. For this reason, always
note those names that appear in many different sources.
- What are the author's political, philosophical and/or religious views?
- Is the author associated with an institution or
organization? What are the basic values or goals of the organization or
institution? Might these affect the objectivity of the work?
B. Date of Publication
- When was the source published? This date is often located on the
face of the title page below the name of the publisher. If it is not
there, look for the copyright date on the reverse of the title page. On
Web pages, the date of the last revision is usually at the bottom of the
home page, sometimes every page.
- Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic? Topic
areas of continuing and rapid development, such as the sciences, demand
more current information. On the other hand, topics in the humanities
often require material that was written many years ago. At the other
extreme, some news sources on the Web now note the hour and minute that
articles are posted on their site.
C. Edition or Revision
Is this a first edition of this publication or not? Further editions
indicate a source has
been revised and updated to reflect changes in knowledge, include
omissions, and harmonize with its intended reader's needs. Also, many
printings or editions may indicate that the work has become a standard
source in the area and is reliable. If you are using a Web source, do
the pages indicate revision dates?
Note the publisher. If the source is published by a university press, it
is likely to be scholarly. Although the fact that the publisher is
reputable does not necessarily guarantee quality, it does show that the
publisher may have high regard for the source being published.
E. Title of Journal
Is this a scholarly or a popular journal? This distinction is important
because it indicates different levels of complexity in conveying ideas.
Some databases enable you to select scholarly journals only for your research. Scholarly journals are usually peer-reviewed or refereed. This refers to the system of critical evaluation of manuscripts by professional colleagues (peers).
This system is used to protect the quality of scholarly materials
published in journals. Publications subject to the referee process are
assumed to contain higher quality content, on the whole, than those that
aren't. To find out if a journal is refereed, check its homepage on the
web or use Ulrich's Periodical Directory, found in the Reference
section of the library (Z6941.U5).
Consider as many of the topics above as possible to evaluate a website's authority. Is there an author and/or sponsor? What is the author's background? What is the purpose of the website? To inform, to pursuade, to sell a product? Is the website current or are many links broken?
Next, examine the body of the source. Read the preface to determine the author's intentions for the book. Scan the table of contents and the index to get a broad overview of the material it covers. Note whether bibliographies are included. Read the chapters that specifically address your topic. Scanning the table of contents of a journal or magazine issue is also useful. The presence and quality of a bibliography at the end of a book or article may reflect the care with which the authors have prepared their work.
A. Intended Audience
What type of audience is the author addressing? Is the publication aimed at a specialized or a general audience? Is this source too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your needs? If you don't fit the profile of the intended audience, is the information relevant for your needs?
B. Objective Reasoning
- Is the information covered fact, opinion, or propaganda? It is not always easy to separate fact from opinion. Facts can usually be verified; opinions, though they may be based on factual information, evolve from the interpretation of facts. Skilled writers can make you think their interpretations are facts.
- Does the information appear to be valid and well-researched, or is it questionable and unsupported by evidence? Assumptions should be reasonable. Statistics should in line with those you have seen in other resources. Does the author give sources for statistics and facts?
- Are opposing arguments treated respectfully and refuted fairly? Are emotional arguments used?
- Is the author's point of view objective and impartial? Is the language free of emotion-rousing words and bias?
- Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information? Does it extensively or marginally cover your topic? You should explore enough sources to obtain a variety of viewpoints.
- Is the material primary or secondary in nature? Primary sources are the raw material of the research process. Secondary sources are based on primary sources. For example, if you were researching Konrad Adenauer's role in rebuilding West Germany after World War II, Adenauer's own writings would be one of many primary sources available on this topic. Others might include relevant government documents and contemporary German newspaper articles. Scholars use this primary material to help generate historical interpretations--a secondary source. Books, encyclopedia articles, and scholarly journal articles about Adenauer's role are considered secondary sources. In the sciences, journal articles and conference proceedings written by experimenters reporting the results of their research are primary documents. Choose both primary and secondary sources when you have the opportunity.
D. Writing Style
Is the publication organized logically? Are the main points clearly presented? Do you find the text easy to read, or is it stilted or choppy? Is the author's argument clearly state or repetive and difficult to follow?
E. Evaluative Reviews
Locate critical reviews of books in a respected reviewing source, such as
Book Review Digest Plus
. Be wary of anonymous user reviews at sites such as Amazon and Google Books. Is the review positive? Is the book under review considered a valuable contribution to the field? Does the reviewer mention other books that might be better? If so, locate these sources for more information on your topic. Do the various reviewers agree on the value or attributes of the book or has it aroused controversy among the critics?