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Evaluating Sources: Home

This guide will help you evaluate the authority and appropriateness of research sources.


In the research process you will encounter many types of resources including books, articles and websites. But not everything you find on your topic will be suitable. Here are some factors to consider as you evaluate the authority of a source and its appropriateness for your research:

Scope. What is the breadth of the article, book, website or other material? Is is a general work that provides an overview of the topic or is it specifically focused on only one aspect of your topic. Does the breadth of the work match your own expectations? Does the resource cover the right time period that you are interested in?

Audience. Who is the intended audience for this source? Is the material too technical or too clinical? Is it too elementary or basic? You are more likely to retrieve articles written for the appropriate audience if you start off in the right index. For instance, to find resources listing the latest statistics on heart disease you may want to avoid the Medline database which will bring up articles designed for practicing clinicians rather than social science researchers.

Timeliness. When was the source published? If it is a website, when was it last updated? Avoid using undated websites. Library catalogs and periodical indexes always indicate the publication date in the bibliograhic citation.

Author. Who is the author? What are his or her academic credentials? What else has this author written?

Documentation. A bibliography, along with footnotes, indicate that the author has consulted other sources and serves to authenticate the information that he or she is presenting. In websites, expect links or footnotes documenting sources, and referring to additional resources and other viewpoints.

Objectivity. What point of view does the author represent? Is the article an editorial that is trying to argue a position? Is the website sponsored by a company or organization that advocates a certain philosophy? Is the article published in a magazine that has a particular editorial position?

What is Peer Review?

Peer Review is a process by which scholarly work or research (often articles) are subjected to evaluation by other experts on the topic. Reviewers judge the work by its originality, accuracy of information, importance to the field, research methodology, and other criteria to determine if it is worthy of publication. Peer Review is also sometimes called "refereed".

Scholarly is a broader category, that includes  peer review and review by editors who are experts in the subject. Both are very different from regular magazine articles which are usually reviewed by a professional editor who isn't an expert in the subject.

How it works:

Scholarly vs. Popular Periodicals

Anatomy of a Scholarly Article

Interactive presentation created by NCSU Libraries demonstrates

Types of Periodicals

When selecting sources for your research project, your professor may indicate that you should use only scholarly sources or that you may use a variety of sources.  Some databases will allow you to limit your search to scholarly, or peer-reviewed, sources while others will not.  Therefore, you should be familiar with the differences between scholarly and popular sources.  The following are factors to consider:

Scholarly journals report on scholarly research and may present the results of experiments or studies.  Popular magazines are intended to inform or entertain, covering current events and hot issues and including commentaries on social and political issues.

Scholarly articles are written by experts in the field, such as professors, researchers and other scholars; their credentials and affiliations are provided.  A scholarly article will often have more than one author.  Popular magazine artilces are written by journalists and freelance or staff writers who work for the publication; most articles have only one author.

Scholarly articles are written to be read by other scholars and are often only available as a subscription or as a benefit of membership in a scholarly society.  Popular magazines are written to be read by the general public and are sold on newstands, in bookstores and some supermarkets.

Scholarly articles include specialized terminology and jargon of the field.  Popular magazines are written in non-technical language and are easy to understand.

Article length and structure:
Scholarly articles are lengthy and provide in-depth analysis of topics; they are more formal and structured with sections such as: abstract, literature review, methodology, results, conclusion, bibliography.  Popular magazine articles are usually short, giving a broader overview of a topic and do not follow a set structure or format.

Scholarly articles include the sources cited in endnotes or footnotes, plus a bibliography or works cited.  Popular magazine articles rarely cite sources but may mention the source of statistics or special reports.

Scholarly journals contain few advertisements, usually just ads for books, journals or conferences.  Popular magazines contain many advertisements as their main purpose is to make money for the publishers; the ads are often for consumer products such as cars, food, clothing, etc.

Scholarly journals are published monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or annually.  Popular magazines are usually published weekly, monthly or daily.

A third type of periodicals is the trade journal/magazine which contains news and practical information for members of a specific trade/field or discipline.  Articles are usually written ty practitioners in that field or journalists with subject expertise. The articles are usually short to medium-length and employ the technical terminology and jargon of the field. Sources are often mentioned and a bibliography may be included.  Advertising is for specific products used in that field. Trade journals are usually published weekly or monthly.