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Evaluating and Selecting Sources

Checklist: Selecting Research Material

Avoid the tendency to think every source you find on a particular subject will be important or relevant to your work. Take some time to evaluate the source by quickly reviewing its bibliographic citation; for some sources, you may need to skim the table of contents, the abstract, the introduction, or the index to assess its usefulness.

Select and Evaluate Sources and Outline Concurrently

Essay-writing is not an entirely linear process. Our left menu puts research, reading and notetaking before prewriting and making an outline, but this organization is a bit artificial. You need to do preliminary research to narrow a topic and create a tentative thesis; as you research, you will find it helpful to be thinking about and sketching out an outline as well. Doing this will help you to decide which sources will be useful and also to figure out what informtion will go where and what information is actually not useful. Hence, you may find it useful to read about Pre-Writing and Making an Outline at this stage of the process.

Keep your tentative thesis and outline in mind as you decide which sources will inform your paper: ask yourself what information in this source is important for your purposes, what type of evidence does it offer and will it be appropriate for your essay. In what section of your essay will the information in this source go? Also consider the following points to ensure you develop a working bibliography (list of sources) of scholarly, relevant, and balanced sources.

  • Do not choose only general material; most of your sources should be books or articles that are clearly focused on your subject.
  • Do not choose only books and articles that support one another. If different perspectives are possible, your essay should try to take into account perspectives that contradict your own as well as those that support it.
  • Choose books that are as up-to-date as the subject demands. In some fields, such as genetics, research material dates quickly; in other fields, such as English, it does not date in the same way.
  • Do not choose only secondary sources of information if your topic (or your prof) require primary sources too.
  • Assess the periodical, publisher, or web site host.

    • In what periodical does the article appear? Are its articles peer-reviewed? Is it recognized by your discipline? Is it a useful, popular periodical? Do you know anything about its biases or its reputation?

    • Who published the book? Different publishers have different priorities. Learn to recognize which publishing houses regularly publish scholarly books. University presses are reliable.
    • Who is the host of the website? Is the host a recognized organization?Is it known to offer reliable information? If the host is not easily identified, you should look elsewhere for information.

     

  • Consider the author’s reputation. Make sure that the author is a scholar if you are planning to present him or her as an academic authority. Be particularly cautious when using web sources.
  • Do not rely solely on electronic sources unless specifically instructed to do so. Be sure to seek out early on the information you will need to cite the source: the name and host of the site, the date of publication, and the complete URL. This can help you to assess the reliability of the source and decide whether to use it or not.

Reading and notetaking is easier once you have taken steps to assess your sources; you can avoid multiple searches or trips to the library.

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