Finding and Evaluating Sources
Wed. Nov. 2, 2016
The library provides you with so much great material for your research, but in the end, it’s up to you to decide which sources will be best for your research project. Here are some tips and techniques to help you find the best quality sources for your needs.
1) Use peer-reviewed journals. Before academic journals publish any of the article submissions they get, they will send copies of these submissions away to a small group of experts in the field of study. These experts will review the article and provide notes to the publisher about its quality and “scholarliness”. This process is called peer-review and is an important convention in academic publishing.
In most library databases, you can limit your search results to only articles that appear in peer-reviewed journals. That way, you’ll ensure that at least one expert has vetted the article and has given approval to its publication in their field.
2) Find out more about the author. Often, the author will provide their credentials and affiliations right at the top of the article. If they work as a professor or instructor at a college or university, or work in a context related closely to the subject matter, that’s often a good signal that their writing and research could be of value. If they haven’t provided this information, it’s usually just a simple Google search away.
Try finding the author’s website, blog, or social media presence to see what area they focus on and the extent to which they write and publish about your topic.
3) Find out more about the publisher. While authors put a ton of work into writing books, articles, or other types of content, it’s the publisher that actually decides to share this content with the world. You can evaluate the publisher in the same way that you evaluate the author. What types of work does the publisher generally publish? Can you see any particular bias present in their publications? Are they funded by private or public interests?
Generally, you will find good academic content is published by academic/university presses or scholarly societies and associations.
4) Find the most important journals in your field. There are many different ways that researchers evaluate the quality of the journals in their field. For you, it can be as simple as asking your professor which journals they recommend. Most profs will be more than happy to tell you which journals they use regularly. There are also statistical metrics that attempt to objectively identify the most important journals in a field by determining its “impact factor”. One such metric is used by Google Scholar.
Try searching for a journal title in Google Scholar Metrics to see if it has a strong impact factor. You can also search for your general field of study, then search within the top publications for your topic.
5) If you’re still unsure about the quality of an article, talk to you professor. Your profs have spent a lot of time learning about, thinking about, and generally grappling with the major topics in your field. They are also the ones who will evaluate the quality of your work in the class. Visit them during their office hours and show them some of the sources you’re considering using. They will certainly be able to tell you if the source fits their criteria of scholarly.