Source evaluation is like being the make-it or break-it judge at a talent show. You get to decide who makes the final cut and can shine in your paper, and who will be left out in the rain. However, you want your judgment to be a thoughtful gesture. Like many other aspects of writing, source evaluation is a process. If you’re unfamiliar with what makes a source valuable or not, here are a few simple steps to follow:
- Make sure you are using relevant sources
- Make sure you are using credible sources
- Make sure there is enough information for a paper
There aren’t very many steps, but these three encompass a lot of information.
First, you want to make sure that you can find sources that relate to your topic. You might be interested in a history of plant etymology or gladiatorial battles in Ancient Rome, but would either one be useful in a paper about underage drinking? Even similar topics might not work. If you want to write about teenager’s stealing their parents’ liquor, then finding sources on the number of fake ID’s in clubs might not be the best option because they are not directly relevant to your main subject. Meanwhile, a source that includes interviews of teenagers who were caught stealing would be a much better fit for the assignment.
The second step is to make sure your sources come from credible publications or websites. Everyone has had that one teacher (or more likely several of them) who has said to never use Wikipedia. This is because websites like Wikipedia, or any website that ends with .com or .org, can be changed by anyone and do not have to be held up to rigorous standards of accuracy. One way to check if a website is credible is to check the authors and see if it ends with .gov or .edu, which means it is a government or educational website. It’s important to check the authors because a website might look credible, but could actually be owned by a biased organization. Googling Martin Luther King Jr. brings up thousands of results, and one of the top ones is by an organization called Stormfront. Stormfront is part of the KKK and would clearly be a biased source. Otherwise it is always a good idea to stick to academic sources, which means they are reviewed by other knowledgeable or certified people in the field. Books are a good choice, and so are academic journals from databases like EBSCOhost and JSTOR.
Finally, make sure there is enough information for the assignment. A subject might be really fascinating, like snail birthrates (or whatever you’re into), but there might only be one or two credible sources for it. Would that be enough to write a 10-15 page paper? Usually it’s not. On the other hand, you might select a topic that is way too broad. If you choose to write a paper about climate change, there are literally thousands of aspects that you could write about all related to that subject. So then the challenge is to narrow it down to a manageable chunk, which is a great time to visit the Writing Center for help! It is easier to write a thorough piece on the views towards climate change in Jakarta than it is to try to write about the entire subject.
Hopefully this helps you choose the topic and resources for many papers in your academic career!
written by Heather D.