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Library Guide for International Students

Selecting and Evaluating Sources

This guide provides useful tips for:

  • Selecting information sources
  • Understanding different types of sources, including primary and secondary, descriptive and analytical
  • Distinguishing between scholarly journals and popular magazines
  • Evaluating information sources 
  • Evaluating websites for reliability

 

Selecting Information Sources

The type of information sources you use will depend upon your research topic and the requirements of your research project.

Ask yourself these questions to determine the types of information sources most useful for your research:

  • Which sources will provide answers to your questions quickly and easily (It's not always the Internet!!)
  • Which sources will provide reliable information?
  • Do you need current or historical information on my topic?
  • Do you need primary or secondary sources?
  • Do you need descriptive or analytical sources

Types of Sources

Think about the types of information you need to find on your topic.

IF YOU NEED:

  • General information - choose nonfiction books, reference books/encyclopedias or reference/encyclopedia databases or web pages
  • Academic, Peer-reviewed, Scholarly - choose academic books, scholarly and peer-reviewed journal articles
  • Facts and Statistics choose handbooks, yearbooks, or almanacs (print or from databases or online) and U.S. government information available on the web
  • Historical information - choose nonfiction books, reference books, encyclopedias, online archives
  • Opinions - choose magazine and newspaper articles (print or from databases) or online
  • Maps, Images, Charts - Choose web pages, almanacs/reference books (print or from databases)
  • Breaking News - Choose news web pages, social media sites, magazines or newspapers 

You should always use a variety of sources in your research so that you get the best, most complete and current information and can validate information across different sources. 

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

PRIMARY SOURCES

Primary sources, containing firsthand knowledge, observation or information are created when an event is currently happening.  Examples of primary sources include:

  • Novels, poems, artwork, films, songs
  • Diaries, personal journals, autobiographies, memoirs, letters, emails, legal documents
  • Pictures, maps, sketches, drawings, photographs
  • Interview transcripts, eyewitness reports, historical documents
  • Reports of scientific experiments

SECONDARY SOURCES

Secondary sources are written after an event has occurred, sometimes many years later.  These sources summarize or analyze the information from primary sources.  Secondary source examples include:

  • Interpretation and appreciation of literature, summary or commentary on research, historical and biographical writings based on factual events and primary sources are examples of secondary sources.
  • Biographies, articles based on an interview
  • Textbooks, reference books, nonfiction books
  • Magazine articles (usually)

Descriptive vs. Analytical Sources

‚ÄčDescriptive sources:

  • provide descriptions/data based on observation and measurement
  • report findings, they do not interpret them
  • may describe a process, action, or event, alone or as part of a series, as in the case of an historical perspective of the laws regarding a particular topic or an overview of the scientific findings regarding a particular topic.

Analytic sources:

  • examine descriptive data in a systematic, logical, scientific manner with the purpose of interpreting what the data means, implies or how it might be applied
  • considers the parts as related to the whole of a process, action or event
  • draw conclusions about those involved, the causes or ramifications
  • may support their conclusions by use of comparisons to similar data. 

Evaluating Information Sources

Evaluating information sources is critical to the process of academic research. Apply the PARCA test to critically evaluate your sources and determine in what way they might be useful (or not) for your research.

Purpose: What is the purpose of the information? Why does it exist?

Authority: Who is the author, publisher, or source? Are they qualified to write on the topic?

Relevance: Does the information relate to your topic? Would you be comfortable citing this source in a research paper?

Currency: When was the information published, posted, revised, or updated? Does the source contain current information?

Accuracy: Is the information supported by evidence? How reliable or truthful is the content?

Evaluating Websites for Reliability

The Web is a valuable information source, but for the purposes of academic research, you must select reliable websites. Here are a few questions that can help you determine the reliability of a website and its appropriateness for your research.

  • What is the domain of the website?

Typically, content on domains with “.edu,” “.org” or “.gov” are from more legitimate sources than content from “.com.”

  • What is the purpose of the information?

Make sure the website doesn’t promote a product or an ideology or present an organization bias.

  • Who is the author, publisher, or source? Are they an authority on the subject?

Ask yourself not only “who wrote this?” but “why should I care what s/he writes?” Look for the author’s identity and also any information about their educational background, professional credentials, etc. This information can often be found under an “About Us” link.

  • Does the information relate to your topic? (relevance)

Make sure that the web pages are relevant to your research and contain information that is thorough and substantially covers your subject matter.

  • How current is the information?

Look for the date of publication to ensure that information presented is up-to-date, esp. if currency of information is crucial to your research/academic field.

  • How accurate/truthful is the content?

Compare the web page to related sources, electronic or print, for assistance in determining its accuracy. Look for factual information (historical or statistical), research/fieldwork observations, as well as citations/footnotes and list of references/bibliography.