Critically Analyzing Information Sources

STEP #1: THE BIBLIOGRAPHIC CITATION

Before retrieving a research item from the library’s shelves or from an electronic database, you can begin to evaluate its usefulness by examining its bibliographic citation.

What is a bibliographic citation? The bibliographic citation is a written description of a book, journal article, or other published work. Citations have three main components:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Publication information (place, publisher, date)

1) Consider the authority of the author

  • Is there an author?
  • Does the author have credentials, a degree, or experience in this area of research?
  • Is the author considered an expert in the field?
  • Does the author have an institutional or organizational affiliation? Is it reputable?
  • Are you familiar with the author from class, other readings, or citations in other sources?

2) Consider the date of publication

  • When was the source published?
  • For web pages, is there a “date of last revision”?
  • Is the source out of date for your topic?
  • Has the source been revised? Is a new edition available? Is there a new preface?

3) Consider the publisher

  • Is the publisher a university press? This usually indicates a scholarly source.
  • Is the publisher reputable or well known? Although this doesn’t guarantee quality, it can be an indicator.
  • Is the publisher known for publishing scholarly journals, books, and materials?

4) Consider the journal or magazine (if applicable)

  • Is the journal scholarly or popular? See “Scholarly vs. Popular” handout for more guidance.
  • How will you be using this information? As background information, for use as a scholarly source, etc.? Does the fact that it is scholarly or not scholarly matter?

STEP #2: THE CONTENT

After an appraisal of the citation information, you should next consider the body of the source.

5) Quick content check

  • Before you read the entire book, chapter, or article, evaluate its content quickly.
  • Scan the table of contents. Does the coverage meet your needs?
  • Read the preface. Does it address your topic?
  • Check for an index at the back of the book. Its absence may indicate a lack of authority.
  • Check for a bibliography or cited sources list. Its absence may indicate a lack of authority. If included, consider the listed sources using evaluation criteria 1-4 above.

These initial checks can help you determine the authority of the source as well as indicate whether the content is suitable for your research needs. If the source still appears to be “good” after these quick checks, move on and consider the content in more depth using the following criteria as a guide.

6) Consider the intended audience

  • What type of audience is the author addressing? To whom is the publication aimed?
  • Does the source meet your particular needs as to background or scholarly information?
  • Is it too simplistic or too complicated or technical?

7) Use your reasoning skills to consider the content

  • Is the content provided presented as fact or mere opinion?
  • Is the author appealing to emotions, or does the author use emotional language?
  • Is the author making a well-reasoned argument backed up by facts?
  • Does the author have a hidden agenda or propaganda interest?
  • Be wary of facts! Skilled authors can convince you that the world is flat. Therefore, consider whether the facts can be verified. Does the author cite sources? Can you verify the facts yourself?
  • Does the information appear valid and well researched? Is it backed up by evidence?
  • Do you detect any bias on the part of the author? Consider the content as well as the author’s affiliation, the publisher, the Web site, and other sources on the same topic.

8) Consider the coverage

  • Does the work update other sources, add new information, or substantiate other material you have already acquired?
  • How in-depth is the work? Does the work extensively or marginally cover your topic?
  • Is the material primary (raw material, first-hand accounts such as diaries, government documents, contemporary newspaper articles, scientific research reports) or secondary (scholarly journal articles, books, encyclopedia articles)?

9) Style, functionality, and legibility

  • Is the work logically organized?
  • With print and electronic materials, are typos and errors present in the text?
  • Are the main points clearly presented?
  • Is the work easy to read? Does it flow, or is it choppy?
  • With Web sites, is the work easy to navigate and clearly labeled? Do the buttons function?
  • With Web sites, is there an index or search function to search the work for specific content?

10) Final considerations

  • Never rely on just one source to answer all your research needs.
  • A source may appear to be accurate and authoritative, but you can never be sure unless you have at least one source (preferably more) with which to back it up.
  • Always strive to seek out additional sources from various mediums (books, journal articles, and Web sites) to build a balanced and well-rounded bibliography.
  • Consider how each source that you choose fits into your research paper.
  • Remember that anyone can publish anything on the Web! Surfers beware!

Use this checklist as a guide. Weakness in one or two areas does not necessarily make the source invalid, but it should raise a red flag. Use your judgment to determine whether or not to include the source in your research.

A worksheet is also available to assist you with this guide.