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Library Guide for International Students

Evaluating and Selecting Sources

This guide provides useful tips for determining what information is needed, what information sources need to be consulted, and how to evaluate the information found for reliability.  

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 

It's advisable to 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 & 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  • Interview transcripts, eyewitness reports, historical documents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)

Evaluating Information

Often finding information is less of a problem than figuring out whether that information will be appropriate for your project. One way to decide whether a source is “good” for your project or not, is to begin by asking some questions about the source. Remember! Evaluation is a holistic process. One of these questions isn’t enough to determine a source’s usefulness. You need to take them all into consideration.

WHO created the source?

  • What authority does the author/organization have to present on this topic?
  • What are their credentials? Are they connected to the field they are writing about?
  • Are they affiliated with any specific organizations? Could this impact their reliability?
  • Is there contact information for the author or publisher?

WHAT is the purpose of the source?

  1. Is it informing? Selling? Entertaining? Persuading?
  2. Does the point of view appear to be objective or does it appear to be strongly biased?
  3. Is the language emotional pointing to a personal connection to the topic?
  4. Are any included images appropriate to the topic and clearly labeled or cited?
  5. If on a website: What URL does the site use and what does this suggest about the source?
  6. If on a website: Are the ads clearly separated from the information?

WHERE does the information come from?

  • Does the source use evidence to support its claims?
  • Are there any references? If so, are they appropriate to the topic and source?
  • Is there a bibliography? If so, what kinds of sources are being cited?
  • Can the information be verified with another source?
  • Is the source presenting fact or opinion?
  • Does the source contain spelling, grammar, or typographical errors?

WHEN was the source published?

  • Has the information been updated or revised if necessary?
  • Does your topic require very recent information, or will older sources be acceptable or even preferred?
  • If on a website: Is a date given for when the information was posted?
  • If on a website: Are there important links that are now dead or overall are they kept up to date?

WHY is this source useful to you?

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the information at an appropriate level for your needs (i.e. not too simplistic/not too advanced)?
  • Does the information help to answer your research question or develop your argument?
  • Does the source add new information or simply repeat or summarize other perspectives?