How to Evaluate Sources for Academic Writing

Tips to Evaluate Information Sources for College Writing Tasks

Finding, analyzing, and processing information sources is an incredibly important part of writing an essay or any other kind of academic paper. The information you gather and use should be not just interesting and relevant for the topics you cover in your writing. It should also be reliable and trustworthy. How do you ensure that the sources you use in your college work can be trusted? Read on and find out.

Essay Writing on learning vs unders...
Essay Writing on learning vs understanding

1. Focus on Peer-Reviewed Sources

Sources are not created equal, and peer-reviewed articles are usually considered the most valuable sources of information. What does “peer-reviewed” mean? Let’s say, you have to write a paper on anthropology. After considering a number of anthropology essay topics, you pick something that works for you. So, who is going to be the best authority in this discipline? The answer is simple – an anthropologist, but not just any anthropologist. You should look for somebody who has published articles that have been read by other authoritative specialists in the field who believe this person to be a reliable expert. Texts like this are called “peer-reviewed”, and you should look for them first and foremost.

2. Learn the Difference between Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

All of them have a place in serious academic research, but they all have different weight.

  • Primary sources are first-hand accounts. Some examples include surveys, interviews, videos, photographs, medical reports, and authentic letters;
  • Secondary sources interpret the primary ones. These are, for example, books, scholarly articles, dissertations, online publications, and so on;
  • Tertiary sources organize, structure, and compile the information from primary and secondary sources. These include tools like encyclopedias, dictionaries, and reference books.

There is nothing wrong with using information and ideas from secondary and tertiary sources in your research, and in simpler papers, you may even get away with using nothing but them. However, primary sources should be the building blocks of any serious research.

3. Check the H-Index of the Source

The h-index is a metric used to determine the cumulative impact of an academic author on his/her discipline. “H” here is the number of the author’s publications that have been cited the same number of times. For example, if an author’s h-index is 9, it means that he/she has 9 publications that have been cited 9 times each. In other words, to have a high h-index, it is not enough to have a couple of oft-cited works; you have to regularly publish your papers, and they should be regularly cited by other specialists, thus demonstrating the scholarly and cultural impact of your entire body of work.

4. Check the Source’s Purpose

Another aspect of a source that can help you evaluate its worth is its purpose. Why was it created? What was the goal of its author? Was it to provide information, promote a point of view, entertain the audience, or sell something? Obviously, sources that advertise something or support a specific viewpoint should be taken with a grain of salt. Moreover, the purpose may not always be obvious – a source may masquerade as purely informational, but its ultimate goal may still be to change the reader’s point of view.

5. Consider the Intended Audience

The intended audience is a good indicator of how much you can trust a source. Is it aimed at academic experts with specialized knowledge, the general public, or students who study this specific discipline? Is the author likely to be using the lack of knowledge on the part of the audience to promote a specific point of view or conceal certain information?

6. Evaluate the Author’s/Publisher’s Credibility

Do some research on the author/publisher of the source. Can the author be considered an authority on the subject? What are his/her qualifications? Does he/she have a relevant background? Has he/she written other authoritative works on relevant topics? Is he/she affiliated with an organization that may have its own agenda (e.g., a business, a government agency, a religious organization, etc.)? Knowing who the author is can be a huge indication of how much he/she can be trusted.

7. Decide if the Source is Accurate and Reliable

A source may seem alright but still offer information that is inaccurate or just plain wrong. Check if the source’s claims can be corroborated by other trustworthy publications. Does it offer the sources of its data in the bibliography? Can you find them to check if they are quoted correctly? If the source relies on original research, what were the methods used in this research? Can you evaluate their reliability and validity? Is there any information about other scholars replicating the results of this research?

Knowing which source you can use and which you should avoid is a huge part of writing a high-quality paper on any topic. We hope that these tips will help you produce better writing in the future!

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