Choosing and Evaluating Sources – A Brief Guide
When writing academic research papers it is essential to make sure that your sources are authoritative (i.e. experts in their field) and relevant to the topic. In many disciplines, it is also important to makes sure the material is timely because new research often supersedes older findings. This is less important in literary studies, but you should always note the date of publication. As ideas and research evolve, some older essays and books may no longer be considered relevant or reliable, while others remain vital contributions to the scholarship on that particular work or topic. You may find that several of your more recent sources cite an essay or book written before about 1970. In that case, it may be useful to consult that source. In fact, anytime that your sources make frequent reference to a specific article or book, it is a good idea to consult that source.
While you will most likely use articles found through literary data bases such as J-STOR, Project Muse, and the MLA Bibliography, books often contain relevant and very useful essays or chapters.
The most common and appropriate sources for academic literary research papers are:
· peer reviewed journals, usually published by universities;
· books published by university presses (such as Oxford, Harvard, Cornell, and Indiana), including collections of essays by scholars on a particular work, author, period, or approach to criticism;
· certain commercial publishers, but only if the book meets scholarly standards;
· and some scholarly websites sponsored by universities, libraries, and professional organizations.
You may also find useful material in literary encyclopedias and indexes, but that material is generally appropriate only as background material of a largely factual nature.
Here are several key questions to ask in evaluating a source:
1. Is the author an authority on the subject? You can assume that any article found in a peer-reviewed journal is authored by an expert on the subject manner. The same is generally true of a university press book. For commercial books, periodicals, and websites, it is necessary not only to research the author’s affiliation and credentials, but to make sure the author is writing about his or her area of expertise.
2. Is the publication, publisher, or website authoritative? Peer reviewed journals found on academic data bases and in hard copy are considered authoritative, as are university press books. Some websites sponsored by universities and scholarly organizations contain authoritative material (or links to it), but you will need to verify that the author is, in fact, an authority. Some commercial publishers (Norton, Farrar, Strauss, and Random House, for example) publish scholarly works by recognized authorities in their fields. Googling an author to check credentials (advanced degree, university and/or professional affiliation, other publications, etc.) is often helpful in determining whether the source is authoritative and relevant. The presence of comprehensive footnotes and an extensive bibliography is often, but not always, an indication that the work is authoritative.
3. Are the author’s views representative of scholarship on the topic or do they represent an exception? This is often difficult for undergraduate researchers to determine. Some very important and useful articles or books challenge conventional scholarship on a given topic, while others are part of a well established dialogue on the topic and/or text. Sometimes the answer is apparent from the essay. If you are not sure, consult your instructor.
4. Is the website current and relevant? What is its target audience? It is important to check the date the site was created and when it was last updated. The same is true of any links the site contains. For instance, one of the most useful websites for literary research, Voice of the Shuttle (vos.ucsb.edu) is updated regularly, but not all the sites it links to are similarly updated. This is not an issue for academic data bases, which are updated regularly. It is usually possible to determine whether the site is primarily aimed at other scholars, students, or the general public. If it is the latter, there will usually be material and links to commercial and other non-scholarly sites. Generally speaking, use sites intended for scholars and/or college students.
Evaluating Information Sources: Hunter College Reading/Writing Center Resource Links to Evaluating Information Sources