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Evaluating Sources: Where to Begin

It’s difficult to evaluate a source if you’re not sure where to begin. Before getting started, it’s important to establish what genre of research you need. Below is a breakdown of how sources are often separated. Once you recognize the differences in sources, it becomes easier to locate exactly what you need and evaluate whether the sources you find seem credible.

Scholarly vs. Popular Sources

Most sources fall into two categories: scholarly and popular. Scholarly sources are written by highly-qualified researchers and have a thorough publication process, which usually involves peer-reviewing and an extensive list of references at the end of the text. Scholarly sources often have a specific audience in mind, most likely other experts in the particular field of study. Examples of scholarly sources include books and academic journals written by scholars and experts.

Popular sources, on the other hand, are written by and intended for a general audience. Popular sources are not peer-reviewed, and they do not usually include a reference list. Examples of popular sources range from some books and magazines to websites and blogs.

If you’re unsure whether the source you’re reading is scholarly or popular, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Does the author have credentials?
  • Is the text peer-reviewed?
  • Is there a reference list or Works Cited page?

If the source you’re examining fits the above criteria, it is most likely a scholarly source.

When searching for sources, different topics might require more scholarly sources or more popular sources. For example, if you were researching the effects of a certain treatment for cancer patients, you would most likely turn to scholarly sources written by experts. However, if you wanted to examine how different news outlets and social media sites portrayed a recent presidential debate, you would instead turn to popular sources.

Understanding the difference between a scholarly and popular source is a crucial step in evaluating credible sources.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Just as sources can be scholarly or popular, sources are also divided into primary and secondary.

A primary source is a firsthand or eyewitness account of information by an individual close to the topic. Examples of primary sources include autobiographies, personal correspondence (e.g., diary entries, letters), government documents, works of art and literature, statistics and data, and newspaper articles written by reporters close to the source. Today, even some social media posts are considered primary sources, because they are firsthand accounts of information.

A secondary source is a source that is more removed from an event, usually written after the event has happened. Examples of secondary sources include biographies, interpretation of statistics and data, and anything written after an historical event or analyzing something that already happened (e.g., examining a work of art from 100 years ago).

Depending on your research, you may need more primary or secondary sources. For example, if you wanted to trace the history of whale sightings off the coast of Alaska, you would probably need to find some historical documents that provide firsthand information on whale sightings from a few hundred years ago. However, if you wanted to look at how boating has changed whale migration patterns, you would probably rely on some secondary sources that interpret data and statistics.

When evaluating sources, being able to determine whether it’s primary or secondary is helpful as you continue in your research.