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Evaluation of sources – assessing the credibility of scholarly sources

When searching for information for your university studies, it is essential to reflect on the material you find and judge its suitability. Here, we will go through what you can consider when deciding whether the source you have found is suitable for your purpose. The focus is on scholarly sources.

Various types of sources

A source is something from which you get information. It can be a person, a text, a web page, a picture, a letter or similar. This page focuses on scholarly material such as scholarly articles, books, theses, book chapters and conference papers.

Different sources are suitable in different contexts

You will need to choose different types of sources depending on how and when you will use them. For example, if you use a source to support your research question in an essay, it is appropriate to use scientific material. However, suppose you want to show that what you are writing about is topical or important to a professional group. In that case, articles in newspapers and trade journals may be appropriate.

It is important to reflect on whether the material is appropriate for the context in which you intend to use it. In the academic world, you are expected to use credible and factual sources and clearly show which sources you have used by referring to them. Your sources should be based on facts and knowledge, not conjecture or guesswork.

Primary source or secondary source?

Primary or first-hand sources contain original data that has not been filtered. These include original scientific articles, scientific books and theses. Primary sources include information from someone who has experienced something firsthand, like letters and diaries, or a researcher talking about their research.

Secondary or second-hand sources build on primary sources by, for example, summarising, analysing or critically reviewing them. Secondary sources include review articles, systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Other types of secondary sources may consist of popular science articles and books or articles in professional journals. These may describe and reproduce research but do not present original data and are often written by non-scientists, such as journalists.

Ask questions about the source to see if it is credible

A standard method for evaluating a source is to ask questions about its origin, purpose, timeliness and content. Based on the answers to these questions, you will get guidance on whether the material is possible to use in the context in which you intend to use it.

Who is responsible for the content?

  • Is the material published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal or a scholarly book? Is it published by a scientific publisher? Then there is a high probability that the material is scientific.
  • Are the authors of the text researchers or postgraduate students in the field? For example, do they work at a university or college? You can usually find information about this in a scholarly article or book.
  • Can you find other material written by the authors? Have they published other texts on the same or related topics? Do other researchers refer to the authors' texts?

What is the purpose of the material?

  • Is it possible to determine why the author wrote the material? Has the researcher described their purpose in the article or book?
  • Is the purpose to present findings from research?
  • Is the purpose to discuss other people's research and create debate?
  • Is the work funded by a company? Could it affect the way the results are presented?

Which target group is the material aimed at?

  • Is the target group other researchers? Then the material is likely to be scientific.
  • Is the target group students or the general public? Then the material is more likely to be popular science or a second-hand source, even if it is based on scientific material.

When was the material created?

  • When was the material written or created? Is there more recent information?
  • When was it published? Could there be more recent editions?
  • Is the information sufficiently up-to-date and relevant to your needs and subject area?

Can you trust the content?

  • Is it a primary or a secondary source?
  • Is the text formulated objectively? Or can you see evaluative or biased elements?
  • Do the facts seem reasonable? Can the data be checked or compared with other sources?
  • Are the methods and theories used appropriate and scientific?

What does the reference list tell you?

What types of sources and how many relevant sources are cited? This can show how well the author knows their field and how the author relates to other researchers in the area.


Films on evaluation of sources

Critical reading

Analysing academic text using critical reading.

Evaluating sources

A tutorial describing how to evaluate sources. From Western University.

Learn more

Questions about evaluation of sources and information searching?

Do you feel lost among different sources, databases and scholarly publications? Visit our drop-in sessions or make an appointment for a tutorial and we will help you. You can also submit short questions via chat or the contact form or ask the staff at the information desk.

Latest update: 2023-01-27