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Homepage / Evaluating your sources

Evaluating your sources


“(…) and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”

Don Quixote

Are you suffering from information overload? How will you evaluate the quality of the sources you have found for your assignment or thesis? Sometimes it can be daunting when you are tasked with extracting the most relevant and authoritative piece of information from the vast amount available. How can you judge the validity of a source? How can you evaluate your sources once you have filtered your search results to a manageable number? There are problematic sources out there. Some may contain flawed or biased findings, some may be deliberately misleading and some may be entirely fabricated and sold for profit.

How our tools can help

The first thing to remember is that Library Search and our subscribed databases are equipped to help you. Abstracting and indexing databases such as Scopus and Web of Science, show important information about articles such as the abstract and author information. This saves you from having to read the full text of every article you find. The Articles + function on Library Search allows you to limit your search results to peer reviewed material. Individual databases can help with this too. For example, Scopus is the largest database of peer-reviewed literature available and includes scientific journals, books and conference papers. Peer-review means that an academic article has been assessed by a panel of experts in the same field. Peer review asks questions like: Is the methodology sound? Is the conclusion reasonable and valid? Has the author related their findings to current research in the field? This process is designed to act as scholarly quality control. This does not mean, however, that peer reviewed research cannot be found to be invalid. It is not a prefect process. You will also need to employ other strategies of interrogation.

You may be looking for a source that is a foundational text and this may often be historical.  It is also very likely that you will need to know that the information you have found represents the most up to date research in your area of interest. Databases can help again, this time, with citation chasing. Citation chasing is the practice of looking up the references that appear in the source you have found and also looking at works that have themselves cited your source. Cited reference searching on Scopus allows you to see how many authors have cited your source since it was published. Crucially, this means that you can judge the article’s impact, it can also help you to determine if the findings have been superseded buy more recent studies or built upon by subsequent researchers. Have there been attempts by other researchers to replicate the study? Abstracting and Indexing databases act as a subject index, allowing you to scan the literature for any instances of the research findings being confirmed or called into question.

The key to evaluating sources is to ask yourself questions. This is true for academic journal articles, conference papers, books or online reports. It is possible to interrogate not only the content and conclusions but also how and why it has been communicated and to whom. Whatever format your source, here is a quick way to remember what type of questions to ask. It is commonly known as the CRAAP test:

Currency: When was the source written and published? Does this represent the most up to date thinking in the field?

Relevance: Is this source relevant to your work? Are the findings central to your investigations or a related area? If you are writing a literature review or tackling a question or problem, you will have to ascertain if a source contains the information that you are looking for. How does the source answer your research question? Are you, for example, looking for original research to support your ideas? Original research will be authored by the researchers and will include an outline of their methodologies, findings, and conclusions.

Authority: Interrogate the author, publication and publisher. What gives the author or publication or publisher authority? What other work has the author been associated with?

Accuracy: Does the source reference the work of others? Does the source include a clear methodology and reasonable conclusions?

Purpose: Why has this source been written? Why has the research been undertaken? What reasons could the author have for wanting to present these findings and does anyone stand to gain from them? There may be bias present, the source can still be used in this case, but it could affect the way in which you present the source in your work.

Ask us!

If you find a source that you are not sure about, your Information Specialist will be happy to discuss it with you. Find your Information Specialist at:

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

May Warren

Written By: Cranfield University

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