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Evaluating Scholarly Sources: Home

Why Evaluate Scholarly Sources?

You might question the need to evaluate scholarly sources like books and journal articles.  They're scholarly, 'nuff said.

Well it's not that easy.  While it is safe to assume that you have a higher quality source, you still need to assess these for quality, authority, and relevance to your assignment.

Scholarly sources can be biased just like any other source.

We have put together some questions to consider when selecting scholarly sources.  It is all these factors combined that help you decide that a source is useful not just one or two.

Evaluating for Quality

Who wrote it?

Scholars can write about topics they are not experts in and they can be biased in their writing.

  • What is the author's area of expertise?
  • How often do they write about this topic?
  • How are they supporting their argument?
    • Backed up with sources?
    • Stating their opinions only?

What is its purpose?

Scholarly sources like books and journal articles are generally published to share information and research.  But that does not mean you should not verify the purpose of the author(s) and publisher.

  • find out what the journal's purpose is and why it might be a good fit for your research
  • why did they do this research? Are the author(s) filling a gap in the research?

When was it published?

Knowing when a source was created is a an indicator of how up to date the information is.

There are some disciplines and topics where having the most current information is important and required.  Other disciplines and topics are more flexible about how current your sources need to be.

How do you know what topics require the most current information?

  • Disciplines like the sciences, psychology, education, and business require more current information because the information in these disciplines changes more quickly.
  • Topics that are currently in the news are also topics where you need more recent information even if it has been in the news before to ensure you have information on the current situation.
  • Get to know your topic, looking at encyclopedia articles is a great way to do this. Read basic information about the topic and learn what the history is, where it started, and what is the current situation.  If your topic has had a lot of change in recent years, then this is a topic that requires more current information.  If there have been major discoveries mentioned in the encyclopedia article that are not fully explained as yet there, then you need to pursue more recent information.
    • Check out the video below for how to use this pre-research in encyclopedia to help you learn about your topic.

What is considered current in scholarly sources?

Because scholarly sources take longer to produce, current does not mean published this year or even last year.

3-5 years old is typically a good window for selecting journal articles, though your professor may set specific guidelines for how old the sources can be.  No more than 8 years old is a good window for books.

It will also depending upon the type of information that the source provides.  If you are using it for background or historical information then you can be more flexible about how old it is, but know that it will not provide history past a certain point.

For disciplines where there is more flexibility in how current sources need to be, you should still consider how old the information is as many disciplines like history, English, art history, etc., have changed in their methodology over time.  These disciplines have become more objective in the 20th and 21st centuries and the sources produced are better quality as a result.

Evaluating for Relevance

What type of information does it provide?

Look beyond the title of the source to find out more about the source and the information it provides.

There are different types of articles within scholarly and peer-reviewed journals.  Book reviews, letters, and comments can be found within these journals and while they come up in your search results as scholarly, they are not subject to the same review process and are not necessarily always good sources for your topic.

Books vary in purpose and content.  Some are general works like textbooks, Opposing Viewpoints books and encyclopedias and handbooks that present a general overview of a topic or issue.  Others are more focused on presenting an argument and/or research about a topic.  Some may be eligible as sources, others may not, it will depend upon your professor's assignment.

So think about the following questions:

  • Does it present original research done by the author either in an experimental setting or looking at primary sources?
  • Does they summarize research done on a topic?
  • Does it provide a history of the topic only?
  • Does it make an argument?

How does it relate to your topic?

Once you've determined what type of information it provides, you then need to consider how it relates to your research topic. 

The goal when selecting sources is not to find sources that only reflect exactly the argument you are trying to make.  You are looking for sources that provide the information that will provide evidence for the various points that support your argument.

  • If the source makes an argument, identify the argument and consider how you could use their work to further your argument.
  • If it provides history or background information, could you use it for history or background in your own work?  Could it come up in another part of your project?
  • Not every source you find will agree with your point of view, examine these as well.  It's important to know the counterpoints so you don't overlook something that invalidates your argument. 

Check out the video below for more information on finding relevant sources.

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