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Research Tips: Evaluating Materials


Tips on how to evaluate various content:


Scholarly vs. Popular
Primary vs. Secondary
Books & Journals: Initial Appraisal
Books & Journals: Content Analysis
Book Reviews
Web Pages: Relevancy
Web Pages: Legitimacy


Scholarly vs. Popular


Scholarly materials are written by and for faculty, researchers or scholars using scholarly or technical language, include full citations for sources. Scholarly items are often refereed or peer reviewed. Book reviews and editorials are not considered scholarly articles, even when found in scholarly journals.

Popular materials are often written by journalists or professional writers for a general audience using language easily understood by general readers. Popular items rarely give full citations for sources, are written for the general public, and tend to be shorter than scholarly materials.


Primary vs. Secondary


A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include speeches, letters, interviews, research, poetry, drama, music or art.

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of secondary sources include textbooks, journal articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries or encyclopedias.


Books & Journals: Initial Appraisal


Evaluating a source can begin even before you have the source in hand. You can initially appraise a source by first examining the citation. A citation is a written description of a book, journal article, essay, or some other published material. Citations characteristically have three main components: author, title, and publication information. These components can help you determine the usefulness of this source for your paper.

A. Author

1. What are the author's credentials--educational background, past writings, or experience--in this area? Is the book or article written on a topic in the author's area of expertise?

2. Has your instructor mentioned this author? Have you seen the author's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? Respected authors are cited frequently by other scholars. For this reason, always note those names that appear in many different sources.

3. Is the author associated with an institution or organization? What are the basic values or goals of the organization or institution?

B. Date of Publication

1. When was the source published? This date is often located on the face of the title page below the name of the publisher. If it is not there, look for the copyright date on the reverse of the title page.

2. Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic? Topic areas of continuing and rapid development, such as the sciences, demand more current information. On the other hand, topics in the humanities often require material that was written many years ago.

C. Edition or Revision

Is this a first edition of this publication or not? Further editions indicate a source has been revised and updated to reflect changes in knowledge, include omissions, and harmonize with its intended reader's needs. Also, many printings or editions may indicate that the work has become a standard source in the area and is reliable.

D. Publisher

Note the publisher. If the source is published by a university press, it is likely to be scholarly. Although the fact that the publisher is reputable does not necessarily guarantee quality, it does show that the publisher may have high regard for the source being published.

E. Title of Journal

Is this a scholarly or a popular journal? This distinction is important because it indicates different levels of complexity in conveying ideas.


Books & Journals: Content Analysis


Having made an initial appraisal, you should now examine the body of the source. Read the Preface to determine the author's intentions for the book. Scan the Table of Contents and the Index to get a broad overview of the material it covers. Note whether bibliographies are included. Read the chapters that specifically address your topic.

A. Intended Audience

What type of audience is the author addressing? Is the publication aimed at a specialized or a general audience? Is this source too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your needs?

B. Objective Reasoning

Is the information covered fact, opinion, or propaganda? It is not always easy to separate fact from opinion. Facts can usually be verified; opinions, though they may be based on factual information, evolve from the interpretation of facts. Skilled writers can make you think their interpretations are facts.

Does the information appear to be valid and well-researched, or is it questionable and unsupported by evidence? Assumptions should be reasonable. Note errors or omissions.

Is the author's point of view objective and impartial? Is the language free of emotion-rousing words and bias?

C. Coverage

Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information? Does it extensively or marginally cover your topic? You should explore enough sources to obtain a variety of viewpoints.

Is the material primary or secondary in nature? Primary sources are the raw material of the research process. Secondary sources are based on primary sources. Scholars use this primary material to help generate historical interpretations-- a secondary source. Choose both primary and secondary sources when you have the opportunity.

D. Writing Style

Is the publication organized logically? Are the main points clearly presented? Do you find the text easy to read, or is it stilted or choppy? Is the author's argument repetitive?

E. Book Reviews

Locate critical reviews of books. Is the review positive? Is the book under review considered a valuable contribution to the field? Do various reviewers agree on the value or attributes of the book or has it aroused controversy among the critics? Does the reviewer mention other books that might be better? If so, locate these sources for more information on your topic.

Book review sources below range from General, to Subject specific. Most review articles can be found at the F&M Library. Other articles can be quickly obtained through Interlibrary Loan.

General Indexes
Book Review Digest (Online: 1983-present)
Includes excerpts from, and citations to, thousands of book reviews annually. Reviews are indexed by author, title and subject. Microfilm Room: 1905-1984

Book Review Index
Provides better coverage of book reviews in scholarly journals than does Book Review Digest. Reviews are indexed by author and title (in recent years). Microfilm Room: 1965- present.

Readers' Guide Full Text (Online: 1983-present)
Indexes over 200 popular U.S. general interest periodicals. Microfilm Room: "Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature" 1900-2004

Readers' Guide Retrospective (Online: 1890-1982)
Comprehensive indexing of 500 of the most popular general-interest periodicals published in the United States and reflects the history of 20th century America.

Subject Indexes
ATLA Religion Index (Online: 1949-present)
Comprehensive database in religious and theological scholarship. Includes index citations, journal articles, essays in multi-author works, and book reviews.

America: History and Life (Online: 1964-present)
Comprehensive bibliography of articles on the history and culture of the United States and Canada, from prehistory to present.

Art Full Text (Online: 1984-present)
Variety of international English-language arts publications. Link will launch OmniFile. Choose database from Subject Area. Microfilm Room: "Art Index" 1929-1996. Book reviews listed at end of each volume.

Business Full Text (Online: 1986-present)
Indexes more than 300 international English-language business magazines covering accounting, finance, management, and small business.

Combined Retrospective Index to Book Reviews in Scholarly Journals
Author and title indexes to reviews in history, political science, and sociology. Reviews indexed by author. Microfilm Room: 1886-1974

General Science Full Text (Online: 1984-present)
Journals and magazines from the U.S. and Great Britain, covering all major scientific fields.

Historical Abstracts (Online: 1955-present)
Comprehensive international historical coverage (excluding the U.S. and Canada) from 1450 to the present.

Humanities Full Text (Online: 1984-present)
Indexes over 300 English-language periodicals covering classical studies, history, literature, performing arts and philosophy. Microfilm Room: "Humanities Index" 1974-1984. Book Reviews listed at end of each volume.

Index to Book Reviews in the Humanities
Features reviews of English language books on language and literature, history, philosophy, arts and classics. Microfilm Room: 1960-1990

Index to Legal Periodicals (see also Lexis-Nexis Academic)
Contains distinct indexes of subjects, authors, cases, plus a separate book review section. Microfilm Room: 1952-1981. Book Reviews listed at end of each volume.

Lexis Nexis Academic (Online: coverage varies)
Connections to newspaper articles (including New York Times and Washington Post), business information (including SEC filings), and legal resources (including state and federal case law).

Philosopher's Index (Online: 1940-present)
Provides abstracts from books and journals of philosophy and related fields. Include the phrase "review article" in keyword search.

Social Sciences Full Text (Online: 1983-present)
Indexes over 300 English-language periodicals covering anthropology, economics, political science, psychology and sociology. Microfilm Room: "Social Sciences Index" 1974-1982. Book reviews listed at end of each volume.

Wilson Select (Online: 1980s-present, varies)
Contains indexed and abstracted articles from periodicals covering a wide array of disciplines, all in full-text. Select Record Type: Book Review.


Web Pages: Relevancy


Review these criteria to determine the relevancy of information found on the Internet. Guide developed by Jan Alexander and Marsha Tate, Reference Librarians at Widener University
ACCURACY

- how reliable and free from error is the information?
- almost anyone can publish on the web
- many web resources are not verified by editors or fact-checkers
- web standards to ensure accuracy are still under development

AUTHORITY

- what are the author's qualifications for writing on this subject?
- how reputable is the publisher or organization?
- it is sometimes difficult to determine authorship of a web resource
- the author's qualifications/background are often not listed

OBJECTIVITY

- is the information presented with a minimum of bias?
- to what extent is the information trying to sway the opinion of the audience?
- the web often serves as a "virtual soapbox" for personal opinions
- the goals or aims of persons or groups presenting information are often not clearly stated

CURRENCY

- is the content of the work up-to-date?
- is the publication date clearly labeled?
- dates are not always included on web pages, or the meaning of the date is unclear (is it the date the information was first written, first posted, or last updated?)

COVERAGE

- what topics are included on the site?
- are the topics explored in detail or depth?
- web coverage may differ significantly from a similar print resource
- it is often hard to determine the extent of web coverage

Some additional concerns -

- many web pages blend information, entertainment and advertising (it can be difficult to tell the difference)
- some web sites are purely marketing tools
- many web pages are unstable and will disappear
- software requirements may limit access
- the danger of altering the content of web pages by unknown parties


Web Pages: Legitimacy


The top-level domain part of a web site's address can tell a lot about the legitimacy of the site
.edu - linked to an educational institution (though this domain can host personal web pages as well.)

.org - non-profit organizations or associations

.gov - a governmental department or agency, or government officials

.com - a commercial site, online service, or a for-profit organization

.mil - U.S. military organizations

.int- international organizations

.net - networking organizations
Look for citations, or some form of verification for the information presented on a web site.

The name and address of an author of a web site is reassuring, though this does not necessarily guarantee authority or legitimacy.

 

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