General Research Guides
Critically Analyzing Information Sources
Evaluating a source can begin even before you have the source in hand, by looking at its citation or at information in the Book & Media Catalog. Bibliographic citations characteristically have three main components: author, title, and publication information. These components can help you determine the usefulness of a source for your paper.
What are the author's credentials -- educational background, past writing, 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.
Year of Publication
When was the source published? In books, 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 side of the title page.
Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic? Topic areas of continuing and rapid development, such as the sciences and technology, demand more current information. On the other hand, topics in the humanities often require material that was written many years ago.
Is this a first edition or an updated edition? Further editions indicate a source has been revised and updated, perhaps to reflect changes in knowledge or to include omissions. Also, a book with many printings or editions may indicate that it has become a standard source in the area and is reliable.
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 a high regard for the source being published.
Title of Journal
Is this a scholarly or a popular journal? This distinction is important because it indicates the level of complexity in the article.
Having made an initial appraisal, you should now examine the body of the source. Read the preface of a book to determine the author's intentions. 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.
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?
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. Note errors or omissions. Is the author's point of view objective and impartial? Is the language free of emotion-rousing words or 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 Adenauer's role in rebuilding West Germany, Adenauer's own writings would be one of the many primary sources available on this topic. Others might include relevant government documents and contemporary German newspaper articles. Scholars use these primary materials to help generate historical interpretations - a secondary source. Books, encyclopedia articles, and scholarly journal articles about Adenauer's role would be considered secondary sources. Consult both primary and secondary sources when you have the opportunity.
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 repetitive?
Locate critical reviews of books in a database such as ProQuest. 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?
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These Research Guides have been prepared by librarians to assist with your research. Read more:
For more information on citation style, see: