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Getting Started with Library Research

Evaluating Sources

Evaluating your source material is likely to be the most time consuming part of your research project.  Ultimately, you want to choose sources that inform your research question and advance your argument while ensuring that you have considered your issues from multiple perspectives, including those that may challenge your initial perceptions. You should consider a variety of sources before determining which ones you will ultimately use. You should never plan to quote a source unless you thoroughly understand it and are certain that you can accurately represent the author’s intent. You should take notes as you read each source and develop an organization system for your material.

Click on the topics below to learn more about how to efficiently evaluate research material:

For much more on this topic, see the library's Evaluating Sources guide.

Determining the Relative Value of a Source

Resources that you find through the library's website are generally reliable. The publishers of academic books and journals usually have strict review processes in place to evaluate work before it is published. Publishers may require their author to hold certain credentials.

In the case of a book, a proposal, drafts, and or sample chapters will usually be reviewed by editors before a manuscript is accepted for publication. Once submitted, the book then goes through a rigorous editing and review process.  If you find that a book or chapter is published by a university such as Cambridge, Oxford, or Princeton, you can be reasonably certain that the item was put through a thorough review. Some well-respected academic book publishers that are not affiliated with a university but also follow strict review policies include Elsevier, Routledge, Wiley, and Springer. Wikipedia provides fairly comprehensive lists of academic book publishers

Some journals also use a peer review process. Peer review means that submissions of articles to scholarly journals are systematically evaluated by others working in the same field. The peer reviewer critically analyzes the article prior to publication for accuracy of data, quality of content and writing, and appropriateness for the journal. Often the journal will ask the author to make changes to their work before it can be published; or a peer reviewer can recommend that an article not be published.  There are quality academic journals that are evaluated by an editor (edited) rather than peer reviewed.

Even though these review processes are in place for scholarly materials, you should take the time to evaluate all material yourself. Poorly researched and even plagiarized information has occasionally made its way into scholarly literature. More importantly though, you want to evaluate material to make sure it is useful for your project. 

The main question that you want to ask as you read a source is: How does the source add value to your knowledge base and, ultimately, your project?  If a source doesn't add value or simply validates what you've already found without providing anything new, you may not want to use it. If a source challenges your ideas about your topic, you may need to revisit your research so that you may examine and address any conflicting ideas or opinions about the topic.

The following questions may help you decide if you want to use any particular source.

  • Why was this item created? What is the author's intent?
  • Is the author credentialed or do they otherwise have practical experience in this area?
  • Is the author's hypothesis or argument logical and backed with evidence? 
  • Are conflicting views and evidence dismissed without much thought or carefully examined and challenged?
  • How does this source reinforce or contradict information found in other sources you've identified?
  • Does the author provide additional sources to read, preferably in the form of a bibliography or works cited list, including material that both validates and challenges the author's thesis, hypothesis, or opinion?
  • How specifically does this source contribute to your knowledge base on this topic? What did you learn from this source that you did not know before?

Additional criteria to consider:

  • Does this information fit your time frame? Are you looking only for recent information or is historical overview acceptable?
  • Is the information at an appropriate level (for example, not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
  • Do you understand the source well enough to explain it to someone else accurately without notes?

Evaluating Websites

There are plenty of great quality websites that can be used for academic work. You can find references to scholarly materials (though not always the full text) by searching the Internet, and lots of free material is produced by colleges and universities. Equally, there is much information on the Internet to be avoided. Free resources may not go through the same rigorous review processes as material published in academic books and journals. Before deciding whether to use free website information, a quick scan will help you determine if you want to stay on that page or look elsewhere:

  • Has the information been appropriately revised or updated?
  • Are all the links functional?
  • Is it free of obvious errors and bugs?
  • Is it free from relentless pop-up ads interfering with your ability to read the page?


Most URLs include a three-letter suffix (top-level domain) that defines their purpose, much like Being aware of the domain can be a good starting point for evaluation.

Suffix Meaning
.com Commercial Site - usually a profit-making entity. Many companies use their websites to advertise and sell products, as well as publish annual reports and other company information for their customers, stockholders, and potential investors on the internet. Some information may be available for a fee. Examine these sites carefully.
.edu Educational Institution - used for schools that are regionally accredited although there are some grandfathered sites that are not. Be sure to examine the site carefully since students or faculty members may publish personal pages.
.gov United States Government - restricted to government entities, such as U.S. federal government departments, programs, and agencies; state government entities and programs; and cities, counties, and parishes. These agencies use the internet to publish legislation, census information, weather data, tax forms, and many other documents.
.org Non-profit Organizations - sites hosted by recognizable, reputable entities, such as the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, or the World Health Organization. These often contain valuable information, but always make sure to check the credentials for the hosting entity and evaluate carefully for bias and accuracy.

Evaluating a Book without Reading All of It

You need not necessarily read an entire book in order to evaluate it. You can make a reasonable determination about a book's usefulness by doing the following:

  • Make sure that the book is published by a reputable press. Most publishers have websites and you can also read about them on Wikipedia.
  • Ensure that the author is credentialed or has practical experience with the topic. If an author biography isn't included with the book, Google them.
  • Examine the table of contents and index to see what topics the author covers.
  • Read the preface and/or introduction, a representative chapter, and the conclusion. 
  • Read any notes provided by the author, and check the footnotes/endnotes and bibliography for references to other helpful material.