Finding and Evaluating Sources

Welcome to the Information Age! Prepare to be inundated!

Trite as that introduction may be, it is certainly true that a staggering amount of information is available to you with a few clicks of the mouse or a few hundred yards' walk to the library. However, only some of this information is suitable to your purposes, reliable, and usable in a professional setting. So how do you find good information? And how can you tell when you've done so?

Finding Sources

First, and as always, consider your needs. What are you writing and why? Is it a scholarly article, a promotional pamphlet, or something in between? Where do the authors of similar writings get their sources?

For a professional or academic paper, you obviously need professional or academic sources. For this reason, Google and other popular search engines make poor research tools. Instead, take advantage of the resources available to you as a member of a university community to locate academically respectable sources.

The Kelvin Smith Library has a million-some books and an astonishing variety of research databases. So why limit yourself to Wikipedia and Google? Talk to the library staff or a knowledgeable friend to find out how to navigate the library's information systems. Trust me; it's worth taking the time to learn how to do this early.

Evaluating Sources

Once you've found a source, consider it carefully. You can evaluate a source by answering several questions about it:

  • What is the source's intent? Does it seek to inform, persuade, or sell? Does this intent match your needs?
  • Is the source credible? And how credible does the source need to be to merit a place in your paper?
  • Does it reference its own sources? Where do the ideas presented come from, and are they backed up with facts?
  • Is the source edited by a third party?

Most academic journals are peer reviewed: they publish a paper only after it has been approved by researchers with relevant experience. Peer review gives a source credibility. Similarly, university presses send manuscripts to outside experts, and the authors often revise their work in response to the experts' suggestions. The books that emerge from this process are generally regarded as reliable sources.

For some topics, however, you may need to draw on a wider range of sources, including newspapers, magazines, popular (as opposed to professional) books, and websites. How can you tell whether these materials are credible?

1. Apply to each source the same standards you apply to your own work. For example, does the source present evidence to support its claims? Does it acknowledge opposing points of view?

2. Be aware of the source's intentions and possible biases. If a research institute argues that global warming is a hoax or that a particular drug will cure an intractable disease, you might want to see whether the institute receives major support from an oil company or a drug manufacturer.

3. Remember that not all opinions are equal. Roger Ebert is more important to film criticism than Joe Nobody, unless you are purely interested in the popular reaction to a movie.

Postscript: Choosing accessible sources

A source is useful to readers only if they can consult it. Wikipedia notably fails in this regard because its pages are constantly changing. If you cite a Wiki page today, that page will be different a year (or maybe 10 minutes) from now, and the version you cited will be difficult to access. This variability, combined with Wikipedia's uneven reliability, makes it an unacceptable reference for academic papers.

Recent sources are often easier to find than ancient texts, and they have the additional merit of being generally more up-to-date and reliable.

Sources

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