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Library Research Orientation: Evaluating Resources

Learn how to use the library catalog, search in databases, and cite your sources.

Questions to Ask Yourself

When evaluating a resource, especially if it is on the open web, ask yourself a few questions.

Who?

  • Who created this resource? Are they qualified to speak on this topic? What do they gain by providing this information?
  • Is this a primary source (original material), a secondary source (evaluation of primary material) or a tertiary source (collection of primary and secondary sources)?
  • Look for the "About Us" section or the author's name and contact information.
  • Verify the organization or author's credentials using an outside source.
  • Red Flags: Anonymous sources, lack of contact information, unqualified authors.

What?

  • What is the resource about? Does it have the information you need?
  • Are there a lot of advertisements? Is it trying to sell you something?
  • Red Flags: Questionable relevancy.

Where?

  • Where is the information coming from?
  • Where does the resource get its own information? Do they list references or outside sources?
  • Red Flags: Lack of references or sources of information.

When?

  • When was the resource created?  When was it last updated?
  • Look for dates of publication or last modification. On websites, do not rely on copyright dates, as these are often updated automatically.
  • Red Flags: No publication dates, outdated web links, reference to outdated information.

Why?

  • Why does this resource exist and how does that affect the information?
  • Look at the "About Us" or "Purpose" sections.
  • Determine what the purpose is, and choose only resources that are compatible with your information needs.
    • Advocacy: It is trying to persuade you to a particular viewpoint.
    • Informational: It has multiple references or viewpoints.
    • Marketing: It is trying to get you to buy or invest in something.
    • Entertainment: It is trying to entertain you.
  • Red Flags: Obvious bias or conflicts of interest.

How?

  • How accurate or credible is the resource? How is it presented?
  • Examine references and bibliographies.
  • Verify information in another reputable source.
  • Avoid resources with errors in spelling and grammar. This should make you question the accuracy of other information.
  • Red Flags: Grammar and spelling errors, lack of peer review, inaccurate content.

Evaluating Periodicals

There are several types of periodicals that you may wish to use, depending on your research needs.

Scholarly Journals

  • Content: In-depth research or original findings by researchers.
  • Author: Specialist or scholar in the field.
  • Audience: Scholars, students, other researchers.
  • Layout: Few advertisements and photos, many charts and tables.
  • Language: Specialized terminology that often requires expertise.
  • Objectivity: Peer-Reviewed (evaluated by other experts).
  • References: Usually required. Facts and quotes are verifiable.
  • Examples: Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Italian Journal of Pediatrics.

Popular Magazines

  • Content: General information to entertain and inform.
  • Author: Journalist who may or may not be an expert in the field.
  • Audience: General public.
  • Layout: Glossy advertisements and photos, few graphs and charts.
  • Language: General-use vocabulary.
  • Objectivity: Content evaluated by editorial staff, not experts.
  • References: Rare.
  • Examples: National Geographic, Time, Newsweek.

Trade Magazines

  • Content: Practical information for professionals working in the field.
  • Author: Professional in the field or journalist with subject expertise.
  • Audience: Professional in the field.
  • Layout: Some professional ads and photos, newsletter format.
  • Language: Specialized terminology, but not as technical as scholarly journals.
  • Objectivity: Content evaluated by editorial staff, not experts.
  • References: Occasional brief bibliographies, but not required.
  • Examples: PC World, Psychology Today, Architectural Record.

These examples based on the following article:

Evaluation Guides

Domain Names

Domain name suffixes often give clues on the reliability of information found on websites. Educational and government sites are generally the most suitable for scholars and students.

Major domain name suffixes include:

  • .edu - educational institutions
  • .gov - government agencies
  • .mil - military sites
  • .org - nonprofit organizations
  • .com - commercial sites
  • .net - networks
  • .uk, .ca, etc. - Websites hosted in other countries (e.g. United Kingdom, Canada, etc.)

Why Not Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a good place to start the research process, but a bad place to end it.

Why doesn't your instructor want you to use Wikipedia for research?

  • Articles can be edited by anyone to include false or misleading information.
  • Articles can be changed, so the information you cite may vanish before your readers can find it.
  • It's not an authoritative source.

This does not, however, mean you can't look at Wikipedia at all!

Here is how Wikipedia can be useful:

  • It provides a useful overview of the topic and its terminology, so you can get an idea of keywords or topics you might research.
  • It provides outside references at the end, some of which are reputable and can be used as sources.

Before using any resources mentioned in Wikipedia, use your evaluation skills to make sure they are appropriate!

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