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.
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 Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic?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.
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.
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?
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.