The amount of information we have access to is overwhelming, and determining whether that information is reliable isn't always straightforward. The resources here have been curated to help you evaluate sources as you move through complex information ecosystems (especially online). The usefulness of a source and how “good” or “bad” it is will be determined by your needs and its relevance to your question. Sometimes, you will need scholarly articles that have been peer-reviewed by experts in the field. Other times, you might need first hand accounts from people with lived experiences in your topic of interest. Remember, any kind of resource can be appropriate and useful for your research, as long as you understand the particularities of each source type, as well as the perspectives and biases of any given source.
Below is a helpful video from Portland Community College on evaluating sources to find quality research that will be useful for your assignment and research question:
Let's begin by discussing peer-reviewed articles. The goal of peer-review in academic publishing is to assess the quality of articles submitted for publication in a scholarly journal. Peer-review is exactly what it sounds like—articles must undergo a process of review by scholars in the field before they can be published in a peer-reviewed, academic journal. Here is an outline of the peer-review process:
Some databases (such as OneSearch@IU) allow you to filter results by Peer-reviewed articles. It good practice to double check the journals from which the articles come to make sure that it is peer-reviewed (if this is what you are looking for). You can do this by googling the name of the journal. You can also refer to the following image when trying to determine if an article is peer-reviewed:
Caveat: It is important to note that peer review does not mean sources that undergo this form of review are objective or without bias. Bias and subjectivity can show up in a number of ways, both before and during any process of peer or editorial review. The peer review process (as well as other scholarly mechanisms) also privileges certain ways of thinking, communicating, and knowing, and not all thinkers or communities have access to (or choose to be part of) this system. While peer review is an integral evaluative process within many fields, and is one pathway through which knowledge can be created and shared, we suggest an expansive framework for finding, using, and evaluating sources, and for students and scholars to consider information sources beyond what makes it into the scholarly conversation through peer review when possible and appropriate.
Adapted in part from and image credit to: John Jay College of Criminal Justice Lloyd Sealy Library, Evaluating Information Sources: What Is A Peer-Reviewed Article?
Scholarly sources are intended for academic use with a specialized vocabulary and extensive citations; these are often the peer-reviewed articles that we discussed above. Scholarly sources help answer the "so what?" questions and make connections between variables (or issues). They:
Image Credit: Duquesne University, Raising Your Scholarly Profile.
To learn more about scholarly, popular, and trade sources, check out the following links:
What are their advantages and disadvantages? (Loyola Marymount University)
Benefits and drawbacks (Seminole State College)
Video on Scholarly vs. Popular Periodicals (from Vanderbilt University):
Video: Vanderbilt University, Scholarly vs. Popular Periodicals. (2017)
Popular sources are intended for the general public and are typically written to entertain, inform or persuade. Popular sources help you answer "who, what, where, and when" questions. Popular sources range from research-oriented to propaganda-focused. They:
Image: Gannon University, Nash Library and Student Learning Commons. Research Process: A Step-by-Step Approach: 2b - Find Information Sources: Popular vs. Scholarly
How do I find popular sources?
Browse the databases below for various popular sources. If you don't see your publication of interest on this list, try searching the library website or contacting a librarian for more help.
Trade publications share general news, trends, and opinions in a certain industry; they are not considered scholarly, because, although generally written by experts, they do not focus on advanced research and are not peer-reviewed. They:
Image Credit: Rapp, Trade Publication Advertising
Finding Trade Publications
Below is a list of other types of sources you may encounter or use for your research:
Books/Book Chapters: Many academic books will be edited by an expert or group of experts. Unlike a scholarly article, which will usually focus on the results of one research project, a book is likely to include an overview of research or issues related to its topic.
Conference proceedings: Conference proceedings are compilations of papers, research, and information presented at conferences. Proceedings are sometimes peer-reviewed and are often the first publication of research that later appears in a scholarly publication. Proceedings are more commonly encountered (via databases and other searching) in science and engineering fields that in the arts and humanities.
Government Documents: The Government Printing Office disseminates information issued by all three branches of the government to federal depository libraries (including IU Libraries). Additionally, the many departments of the government publish reports, data, statistics, white papers, consumer information, transcripts of hearings, and more. Some of the information published by government offices is technical and scientific.
Theses & Dissertations: Theses and dissertations are the result of an individual student's research while in a graduate program. They are written under the guidance and review of an academic committee but are not considered "peer-reviewed" publications.
Grey Literature: Grey literature refers to the wide body of reports, conference proceedings, preprint literature, working papers and drafts, personal communications, technical notes, theses & dissertations, and other ephemeral scientific and research materials published by business, governmental, or academic organizations. While not often utilized for student assignments, this literature can be helpful for engaging with new ideas, alternative perspectives, and emerging scholarship.
Adapted from: NM State University Library, Understanding & Evaluating Sources. (2022).
Now that we've discussed peer-review and some types of articles, let's look at other ways to evaluate your sources. We will discuss media timescales, popular & media sources, what to do with sources, and some tests you can perform to evaluate credibility.
Peer-reviewed sources are only one type of source. Let's think about some ways to identify sources and whether or not they will be valuable for your research. Sources go through various levels of review. The following graphic helps illustrate the speed at which media is published:
A source with a slow media timescale doesn't necessarily indicate this it is better or more useful than a source with a fast media timescale. Some research questions require a combination of all three timescales while others—say literature reviews or papers with peer-reviewed sources as a requirement—will require slow timescales. Think about which kind of sources you are looking for. This can help you determine if a source will bolster the argument or your paper or if you adding that source will detract from it.
Adapted from and image credits to: The Media Timescale Edition by Noah Brier. Why is this interesting? Substack. (2022).
Lateral reading is a technique, often used by professional fact-checkers, that evaluates a source's credibility through external sources which refer to the original source. Lateral reading involves using Wikipedia, credible news sources, and other references to better understand a source's credibility, funding, reputation, conflicts, and biases. To perform lateral reading, open a new tab in your browser and search the name of your website of interest. You can also search for the author, publisher, and affiliated organization (i.e. funders, board members, supporters, etc.). Explore fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact, Snopes, and FactCheck.org and media bias charts such as Ad Fontes or Allsides. Using lateral reading can help you evaluate many different types of sources including social media, websites, blogs, and news outlets. For more information on lateral reading, see Salem State University's How-To Guide and the Lateral Reading infographic from University of Louisville Libraries below:
Citations: Salem State University "Lateral Reading: A How-To," University of Louisville Libraries "Lateral Reading," The Ohio State University Teaching & Learning Resource Center "Evaluating Sources Using Lateral Reading," Milton Academy "GEN: Source Evaluation: Lateral Reading"
Video: Stanford History Education Group, Sort Fact from Fiction Online with Lateral Reading. (2020)
Media and Popular Sources
Popular sources typically refer to general interest publications like newspapers and magazines. While different from scholarly sources, some newspapers and magazines might be useful in helping you answer your research question. For example, if you are performing research on public policy and information campaigns during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Twitter feed of a local health organization might provide you with valuable information. Magazine articles, newspapers, and blogs can inform you about the public perception of an event during a certain time and how people reacted to said event. Popular sources can also provide simplified descriptions of scholarly research, background information, or offer opinions and more personal points of view on a topic. See our section on News & Newspapers to learn more about evaluating popular sources.
What do I do with different sources?
Below is a method called BEAM, which asks you to consider the function of your source—what it is and how you might want to use it in your paper. For example, a passage from a novel might work better in a body paragraph of your essay rather than in the introduction or conclusion.
|Source Function||Explanation||Types of Sources||Where can I use it?|
|B: Background||Factual and noncontroversial information, providing context||Encyclopedia articles, overviews in books, statistics, historical facts||Introduction|
|E: Exhibit/ Evidence||Data, observations, objects, artifacts, documents that can be analyzed||Text of a novel, field observations, focus group transcriptions, questionnaire data, results of an experiment, interview data (primary sources)||Body/Results|
|A: Argument||Critical views from other scholars and commentators; part of the academic conversation||Scholarly articles, books, critical reviews (e.g. literacy criticism), editorials||Body, sometimes in Introduction or in Literature Review|
|M: Method||Reference to methods or theories used, usually explicit though may be implicit; approach or research methodology used||Part of books or articles with reference to theorists (e.g. Foucault, Derrida) or theory (e.g. feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism etc.); information on a research methodology||Methods or referenced in Introduction or Body|
Citations: UC Merced Library, Source Functions: Background, Exhibits, Argument, Method (BEAM). (2022).
When locating and evaluating resources, you can use the SCAAN test to help determine if they are appropriate to use, reliable, and relevant:
There are a number of other, similar "tests" that you can use to assess the credibility and utility of information and resources you find. These include:
Whichever heuristic or evaluation you use, remember that lived experience is a form of expertise; it's often helpful to consider the position and experiences from which an author speaks or writes as part of your process of evaluating a source or piece of information. You may also want to reflect on your own biases when reviewing your information. How might your identity and positionality impact your consideration or evaluation of a source? If the source had the opposite position or result, how would that affect your opinion of its validity?
Video: UOW Library, Evaluating Sources. (2018)
Adapted from: USC Libraries Research Guides, Evaluating Information Sources.