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J. Frank White Page : Source Evaluation

Popular and Scholarly Sources

As you have probably experienced, it seems like you can find just about anything on the web these days. While this is not completely accurate, it is true you can find a great variety of types and quality of information on the internet. How to make sense of it all? How can you tell if what you find is from a reliable source and if it is appropriate to use for academic purposes in a paper or class presentation? How can you tell when it is okay to use something you find online as a source and when you should use a library database? Unfortunately there is no simple answer or rule that will always apply here. You can sometimes find some amazing things online and we are indeed fortunate to have access to so much and such varied information. But just as often it is all too easy to get lost, confused, or frustrated when what seems like a simple question or fact you need proves difficult to find. One key distinction that may be of use here is the difference between popular and scholarly sources.

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Popular and Scholarly Sources

Source Types

Now for a quick overview of source types. This is the form or format information is distributed in. Generally when searching for information we go to three different types of resources: books (or monographs, meaning they come out once only), periodicals (meaning they come out periodically, such as newspapers, magazines, and journals), and websites (which can have characteristics of both books and periodicals). We can also include multimedia as a broad category: audio and visual sources. We generally we use a different database/search tool for each.

Source Type Search Tool Example Use for
Books Catalogs (Piper), Search Engines (Google) Print and ebooks In-depth analysis, full treatment of a subject
Periodicals: Newspapers Databases (Academic Search Premier, Worldcat), Search Engines New York Times, Knoxville Sentinel Current info, local info, editorials, commentary
Periodicals: Magazines Databases (Academic Search Premier, Worldcat), Search Engines Time, People, Rolling Stone Info on popular culture and current events, non-specialist articles written for general public
Periodicals: Journals Databases (Academic Search Premier, JSTOR, PubMed), Search Engines (Often have the word “journal” in them, Journal of Educational Psychology) Scholarly research, primary research, in-depth focused articles
Multimedia Search Engines, Catalogs and Databases (Worldcat) Broadcast News, Documentaries, Feature Films, Educational Videos, Podcasts, Radio Interviews Varies, but mostly current info, pop culture, background info
Websites Search Engines (Google) News, entertainment, blogs, networking, statistics, some scholarly materials Getting started with research; up-to-date information, statistics, general background info

You need to know these in order to know what you have in your hands (or on the screen). One complication here is that you can find almost all of this on the internet, on websites. It is often a good idea to ask yourself if the source in hand (or on-screen) is, or was at some point, available in print or if it is "born digital". For instance, most newspapers now have online editions in addition to the print copy. Doing this can help you understand and identify the type of source you are dealing with.

Searching for Different Types of Sources

Knowing what databases are, what kind of stuff is in them, when it is appropriate to use them, and how to best search them are all very important components of the searching step of the research process (that's step 3 if you're keeping track). Generally when searching for information we go to three different types of resources: books, periodicals (articles in newspapers, magazines, and journals), and websites. And generally we use a different database for each.

Books: Catalogs (such as the Piper Catalog)

Periodicals: Databases (such as JSTOR and Literature Resource Center)

Websites: Search Engines (such as Google and Yahoo)

General Evaluation Criteria

Knowing the source type (book, periodical, website) and whether it is more popular or scholarly are good ways to evaluate a source from the outside. But you also have to know how to evaluate a source from the inside. Librarians and internet educators have developed many catchy and quirky acronyms for evaluating websites. There is, for instance, CARS (Creditability, Accuracy, Reasonableness, Support), PACAC (Purpose, Authority, Content, Accuracy, Currency), and CRAAP (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose).

What it boils down to is: who wrote the site and why? How does the author know what they know? Is the information on it accurate and objective and does it suit your purpose (i.e. is it relevant to your thesis)? These same criteria often apply to all sources you may find and consider using, even academic sources from library databases. But it is especially important to consider the source when you find it on the open web because websites often lack many of the editorial processes traditional sources have in place, such as peer review. In other words since, on the web "anybody can write anything" you have to be especially careful.

Information Cycle

The information cycle is the life a work takes on after it is published. Upon publication, the creative process leading to the creation of the primary source – the novel or poem or literary work itself – is complete, but its life in the cultural sphere into which it is introduced is just beginning. Knowing the basic trajectory of a work’s reception will help you understand the context and evaluate the quality of the secondary sources. For literature, secondary sources are all the other things that get written about the primary source. This includes reviews, commentary, literary criticism (which may come in the form of scholarly journal articles, books, book chapters, or a scholar’s website), reference works, and more.

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Website Evaluation Form

This is a template website evaluation form. It can be used to help determine the quality of a website.

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