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Evaluating Sources Help Guide

You've found a source - but how do you know if it's the right source for your needs? This guide will discuss approaches to evaluating sources for your research.

Why Does It Matter?

“Scholarly” and “popular” are terms used to describe a source’s content, purpose, audience, and format.

Scholarly materials are preferred in college-level work because these types of materials are created using proven research methods. Additionally, both the research and conclusions have been judged sound by a group of the researcher's peers.

This is why scholarly material are also known as “peer-reviewed.” In this way, the work is transparent - you could go back to the same sources or replicate the study yourself because you know the process the original researcher used.

This is not true of "popular" or non-scholarly materials. Popular materials are sometimes used in academic research, usually as primary sources. Popular resources can also be used to get ideas about a topic or to develop a general, background understanding of an issue.

Scholarly, Popular, and Reliable

How can you tell the difference between a scholarly source and a popular source?

Some sources are reliable even though they may not be scholarly. Reliable sources usually come from professional or trade organizations but, since they don’t undergo peer review, they are not considered to be scholarly.

This table breaks down some things to look for.

  Scholarly Popular Reliable
References Always include a list of cited references. Do not cite references. May cite references.
Content Report on original research projects and all research articles are peer-reviewed. Typically reporting on current events, trends, or issues.

Will usually include factual support for any arguments made.

Look for facts used to support the authors argument.

Will be geared towards an educated audience.

Look for sources that do not favor one side of an issue, or one point of view, over another.

Authorship Names, credentials, and contact information provided. May not provide a named author; typically does not include author's credentials and may not have contact information. Look for list of authors and their affiliations and/or credentials.
Language Written in a formal manner, using technical language that is specific to a particular discipline. Written using less foreign language and is easy to understand. Look for high-quality writing, including correct grammar and spelling.
Appearance Very serious looking; rarely includes color photographs or advertisements. Not as serious looking - usually has lots of color photographs and advertisements. Varies, may or may not include color illustrations or advertisements.
Publisher Published by academic presses. Published by commercial publishers. Government agencies, non-partisan research institutes or policy think tanks, trade or professional groups, major media such as The Economist, The New York Times, or The Christian Science Monitor.

Samples

Here are a few samples of scholarly and popular resources.

Scholarly Cover of The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness Cover of Science Cover of Technology and Culture
Popular Cover of Sports Illustrated Cover of Popular Science Cover of Wired
Reliable Cover of Sports Medicine Update Cover of National Geographic Cover of Aviation Week and Space Technology