As you engage in searching for and working with resources on your research topic you will find that not all sources are equal. It is important to learn how to judge the quality and relevance of the sources you encounter. In this Compass Point you will find useful criteria and strategies to apply when assessing the significance, validity, and accuracy of sources, as well as when engaging in different search activities.
Are You Looking in the Right Place?
First, be aware of the content of the databases that you use. The databases on the Libraries' website include a variety of different types. Some have reference material; some have full-text articles; some have citations to articles. Database information screens, the first screen after you click on the database name, will show you the dates, the topical areas, and the types of materials that a database covers. For example, you will not find scholarly material in a general news database such as Lexis-Nexis, nor will you find general interest magazines and newspapers in a scholarly database such as America: History and Life.
Evaluating a Resource
Second, when using any source or database, you should note its (1) Author, (2) Publisher, and (3) Accuracy, Objectivity, and Timeliness in order to evaluate the quality of the resource. This is especially important when using websites that are not part of the Columbia Libraries' collection of electronic resources.
When reading or browsing books and journal articles, look at the author's credentials and ask yourself some questions: Does the author have an academic background? Is he/she well known in the field? Or is he/she someone with little expertise writing for a more general audience? Has he/she written other books or articles on the subject? You can often find this information in the author bio.
When dealing with web resources, be wary if the author is unidentified. If the author is identified, what are his/her credentials? Does he/she have expertise in this field? You might want to do a Google search of the author's name to verify his/her identity. Is contact information provided by the web page? If an individual or group's address or phone number is included, you can easily find out more about the content of the web page.
Here's an example of a web page with a reliable author:
Thomas L. Friedman is a respected journalist and author who has shown his expertise in the Middle East and foreign affairs through his work as a New York Times correspondent. If you read the author bio you get a sense of the depth of his experience in the field and the contact link allows you to communicate with the author.
For books and journals, check who published the material. Is it a university press? An academic or scholarly society? Is it a reputable journal? For web resources look at the server name or publishing entity. This can help you to determine the origin of the document, for example whether it was produced by a federal or local agency, a nonprofit organization, an academic institution, or a commercial website. A website on a university or institution's server is generally a more reliable and objective source than a commercial site.
An example of a commercial site:
This is tobacco company Philip Morris's page on Youth Smoking Prevention. Though it appears to be serious and sincere, it's worth remembering that this company's goal is to make a profit through selling cigarettes, a direct contradiction to their message here.
An example of an academic website:
The Columbia University web page contains content written by and for the faculty, students and affiliates of the University as well as for a wider academic audience. The news pages, for instance, in which different faculty members comment on issues in their particular field, can be counted on to be authoritative.
Accuracy, Objectivity, and Timeliness
These are important factors to consider for both print and online sources. First, can the facts presented on a website be substantiated elsewhere? Be cautious about websites that present data that cannot be confirmed. Also, beware of sites that express overt bias. Websites are notorious for presenting skewed information that promotes their particular agenda. Finally, pay attention to the timeliness of the source. Has the web resource been updated regularly? Are the bibliographic references in a book or journal article recent or more than ten years old?
An example of a current, well-maintained web resource:
This is the web page of PBS, the public broadcasting system. It enhances the content of their television programs with background information, images, etc. and is a reliable source of information.
An example of a biased web page:
Although full of valuable information on birth control and family planning, Planned Parenthood also states plainly that it is not neutral about the issue of abortion and openly states its views on access and rights to an abortion.
For more information on guidelines for evaluating web resources, see resources in the Toolkit for this Compass Point.
Evaluating Your Search Strategy
Evaluating your research strategy at every step will help keep you focused and lessen frustration. The evaluation process is continuous and should be a conscious part of your strategy. At every stage, you make choices based on critical judgments:
- Which questions you will pursue for your topic
- Whether you will use one resource over another to support your argument
- Why you choose to present your thesis from a certain point of view
If, for example, you aren't progressing at any stage of the research process, reconsider the choices you've made. Look at the questions you've asked to arrive at your topic. Perhaps you should reconsider them or change your perspective slightly.
In the same way, if you aren't finding sources that seem appropriate or that provide evidence to advance your argument, take a different approach. Try different keyword searches or ask a colleague, your professor, or a librarian for different ways to look up information on your topic. There may be a database you're not aware of or a bibliography you've overlooked.
What's important to remember is that this process is dynamic; you are always asking questions, making choices, and evaluating outcomes.
continue to... Documenting Your Resources