Authority - Authoritative sources of information are able to be verified and documented, and are produced by someone held responsible for the content. Questions to ask:
- Who produced this information?
- What credentials or special knowledge does this author have?
- Do other sources contradict the basic facts that this source relies on?
- Is this information backed by a reputable publisher?
Documentation - Information in a scholarly paper must come from documented sources that have evidence that supports statements and conclusions. Questions to ask:
- Are the facts supported by reputable documentation?
- Is the documentation from published sources, not private websites?
- Does a lot of the documentation come from one or two sources or one or two authors?
- Is there enough information to cite this source in a paper (author, title, place of publication, publisher, date)?
Timeliness - How important is it to find current information? It depends on the discipline are of your research (business, medicine, most sciences - timeliness is critical; humanities, history, literature - timeliness usually not critical). Questions to ask:
- How important is timeliness to my research topic?
- Have significant events occurred since the writing of this source that weakens its usefulness?
- If this is a website, is there a "last updated" date?
- Is there a more recent edition of this work that would be more useful?
Depth - Popular sources of information (magazines, personal websites) are often inappropriate sources for academic papers. Scholarly sources can be identified by the following: writing style at or above college level; documentation is present; article includes an abstract and citation list; conclusions are well-substantiated. Questions to ask:
- Is this a scholarly source or a popular source?
- Is the vocabulary college-level or above?
- Is the information sufficiently detailed?
- Does this source add to the body of knowledge about a topic or just repeat what others have said?
Watch out for the following "red flags" when evaluating a source:
- Bias - Does the author have a point of view to sell you, while claiming to present a balanced view? Is there evidence of "card stacking," presenting evidence that supports while suppressing evidence that does not agree?
- Generalizations - Does the author use the conclusions for one example to imply that the same conclusions can be applied to a whole group or can be used as a wide-ranging principle?
- Logical errors - Does the argument set up false premises, attack another person's character rather than focusing on the person's viewpoint, appeal to an authority as the final arbiter of truth rather than arguing on the merits of the case, or make other logical errors?
- Poor presentation - Does the writing contain grammatical or spelling errors, poor writing style or disjointed organization?