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Kreitzberg Library for Online Students

Choose and Evaluate Sources

This guide provides information on how to choose and evaluate sources.

Information Timeline

Different types of material have their own unique characteristics and take different amounts of time to produce. For example, a newspaper article takes significantly less time to produce after an event than a journal article or a book.

Looking at the information timeline will help you to better know what materials are available about an event or topic. If your topic is fairly recent, it will be less likely that you will find books or journal articles since those take more time to create. However, you will probably find many website posts and newspaper articles.

The Information Timeline for Different Sources

Books

Books are a go to source for scholarly research, so some people think that if they read something in a book, then it has to be true. This may be more true of books produced by academic presses (the majority of what you'll find through the library) that have to stand up to more rigorous investigation. This is why it is important that you think critically about what you're reading and evaluate any source you consider using for quality and appropriateness.

Newspapers

Newspapers are only appropriate sources under specific circumstances and for many of your papers, they should not be cited.

  • Newspapers target general audiences with popular or current news stories.
  • The articles are written almost entirely by staff reporters who write on a variety of subjects and do not have any special academic qualifications.
  • Newspapers usually only include a brief summary or overview of an event with basic factual information.
  • Newspapers also contain editorials, which are opinion pieces. 

Newspapers are good for: Learning the basic facts, getting information about something that happened within the past few weeks, understanding people's reactions to an event. While they can help to give perspective, newspaper articles should not be the only sources used in most research papers.

Scholarly Journals

You may find that your instructor requires you to use only peer-reviewed, scholarly, or refereed journal articles in your research.

  • A scholarly journal article is one that presents in-depth, original research in a specific field.
  • These articles have been written by experts in the field and reviewed by other scholars in the field for scholastic standards and validity. Peer review is the process of reviewing these articles. The articles are reviewed by other experts in the field (peers) and if the article doesn't meet rigorous standards, it will either be rejected or will be sent back to the author for corrections. Therefore, the conclusions in scholarly journal articles have been rigorously reviewed and are most likely to be based on fact.

Trade Journals

Trade journals are geared towards individuals in a specific profession and depending on what your instructor requires, these may be excellent sources for your research papers.

  • Articles are written by a mix of staff writers and professionals in the field.
  • The articles in these magazines are usually written on hot topics and are often designed to offer practical advice to practitioners.
  • While trade journals are of a higher quality than popular magazines, the articles are not peer-reviewed and are usually not based on original research.

Popular Magazines

Like newspapers, popular magazines are only appropriate sources under specific circumstances and for many of your papers, they should not be cited.

  • Popular magazines target general audiences with popular or current news stories.
  • The authors are not usually experts in what they're writing about and more often than not, they are staff members who write about whatever they're assigned.
  • Magazine articles do not involve original research findings and the articles are not peer-reviewed.

As with newspapers, one is more likely to find articles about current events in a magazine than in a scholarly journal. If one is writing about a very recent subject, magazine and newspaper articles may be the only print resources available. When your instructor requires that you use only scholarly, peer-reviewed, or refereed journals (the three terms mean approximately the same thing), though, you shouldn't use popular magazines.

Web Resources

Some people may tell you that you can't find quality resources on the Web. For some subject areas, this is simply not true.

The Web is a treasure trove of quality information; the problem is that you have to sift through the trillions of pages that are not of high quality. And you need to be able to tell the difference. If you are doing research on issues regarding governments, the military, foreign or domestic policy, and other related issues, the Web can sometimes provide more timely information on your topic.

If you are looking for statistical data, government Websites, NGOs and think-tanks can often be excellent sources for data. Even within these categories of items, you need to be critical of what you read.

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