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Evaluating Information Sources

This guide will help you to evaluate resources you use for research, whether it is an online or print journal article, a website, a book, a newspaper article, or other source that you want to cite.

Types of Sources

What is a Scholarly Source?

A scholarly publication is one in which the content is written by experts in a particular field of study - generally for the purpose of sharing original research or analyzing others' findings. Scholarly work will thoroughly cite all source materials used and is usually subject to "peer review" prior to publication. This means that independent experts in the field review, or "referee" the publication to check the accuracy and validity of its claims. The primary audience for this sort of work is fellow experts and students studying the field. As a result the content is typically much more sophisticated and advanced than articles found in general magazines, or professional/trade journals.

In brief, scholarly work is:

  • written by experts for experts
  • based on original research or intellectual inquiry
  • provides citations for all sources used
  • is usually peer reviewed prior to publication

To see the typical components of a scholarly journal article check out the Anatomy of a Scholarly Article from North Carolina State University Libraries.

Be Careful!

Some publications have many characteristics of a scholarly work but are not peer-reviewed. These can be valuable sources for your research but he extent to which a particular work would benefit  from formal scrutiny is not always clear. For example: 

  • Government documents
    • A vast array of publications are produced by government bodies. Some of these will not peer-reviewed but are produced by subject experts and have most of the characteristics of a scholarly publication. You will have to assess each government publication you wish to use to ensure that it is appropriate source material for your purposes.
  • Conference proceedings
    • Compilations of papers presented at conferences are sometimes the base material for future refereed publications and have already been peer-reviewed. You will need to check the status of any material you find in a collection of conference proceedings to ensure that it is suitable for your research.
  • Theses & Dissertations
    • While subject to rigorous review, theses and dissertations are not universally considered to have been peer-reviewed. Check with your instructor to determine if these are acceptable sources for your research.
  • Books from academic/university presses
    • If a book's editorial board is not comprised of subject experts it cannot be considered peer-reviewed, yet it may still be a very useful source. Ask yourself: is the author an expert in the field? Does the book have all the other criteria of a scholarly publication besides being peer-reviewed? If yes to both - the book will likely be a useful addition to your collection of (mostly refereed) research sources.

What is a Popular Source

While many of your research projects will require you to read articles published in scholarly journals, books or other peer reviewed source of information, there is also a wealth of information to be found in more popular publications. These aim to inform a wide array of readers about issues of interest and are much more informal in tone and scope. Examples include general news, business and entertainment publications such as Time Magazine, Business Weekly, Vanity Fair. Note, special interest publications which are not specifically written for an academic audience are also considered "popular" i.e., National Geographic, Scientific American, Psychology Today.


What is a Trade Publication?

These are more specialized in nature than popular publications, but are not intended to be scholarly. These types of publications are aimed at experts in the field and/or keen amateurs, but the content focuses on news, trends in the field, promotional material etc. Research findings are not typically disseminated here - though they may report that a scholarly publication is forthcoming. These types of publications typically will contain more advertising than a scholarly journal - though it's usually targeted to the field in some way. Examples: Publishers Weekly; Variety; Education Digest

Is this a Scholarly or Popular Source?

You may be asked to find scholarly sources for your research paper or assignment. There are key differences between scholarly and popular publications. For a quick guide on evaluating the difference between these sources, watch this brief video.


 

For a print version of the video's content, download this quick reference reference.