In a perfect world, your professor assigns a paper and provides you with a list of acceptable source material as well as a due date that allows plenty of time for library research. And, of course, you use that time wisely.
In the real world, maybe you procrastinate till the last minute and then leave yourself 24 hours to write up the assignment.
Whichever world you find yourself in, you’ll need to find the most accurate sources for your assignment in the most time-efficient way. Richard Brzustowicz, MLIS, instruction and outreach librarian, and Bret Stiffler, interim director, both at Grace Library, Carlow University in Pittsburgh, offer some guidelines for searching out, and sussing out the great from the not-so-great sources.
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Consumer publications vs. scholarly articles
Newspapers and magazines. You probably know that Wikipedia is not a credible online source for academic papers, but newspapers and consumer magazines—though good for background information—fall into that category as well. “A newspaper reports facts, but it’s a source of secondary information,” explains Brzustowicz. Look for links in the article (to studies or research, for example) that can verify those facts.
A national paper like the New York Times “has strong resources and a long history of fact-checking,” says Stiffler. “That’s not to say a local newspaper isn’t credible,” he adds, just that the reporters are likely less experienced. Either way, verify the claims that are being made rather than accepting them at face value.
Content that is geared toward the general consumer—as is the case with newspapers and popular magazines—won’t require the level of primary research or, in many cases, the same degree of scrutiny as an article in an academic journal. Generally speaking, most general interest publications won’t provide the type of information your professor will be looking for.
Scholarly research. Articles in peer-reviewed journals will generally provide the accurate, advanced research that your assignments will require. “Peer review is basically a process where a researcher will develop an experiment and publish their findings and other experts in the field look over their methodology to be sure that there was nothing weird in the way they conducted their experiment, or the way they collected their data,” explains Stiffler. The best way to find peer-reviewed journals is from your school library’s databases and search systems, which can filter your search to include peer-reviewed journals.
You can tell if a journal is peer-reviewed by looking at the front cover of the print periodical. Also, the “About” section of its website usually provides information about the journal and the institution that publishes it. Still not sure? Ask a librarian.
You can find peer-reviewed journals on the Internet, but you won’t be able to access them unless they’re open access or free. “Countless times on Google Scholar you’ll find articles hidden behind paywalls, and accessing even just one article is going to run you a lot of money,” says Brzustowicz. He suggests that if you find sources on Google scholar that look like they’re worth checking out, then copy and paste the title of the article into your library’s database.
“Even if it’s not available through one of the databases or print serials that your institution subscribes to, your librarian can always get it for you from another organization via interlibrary loan. It might take a little longer, but you won’t be paying $50 to $100 to read a 20-page article.”
Whether you’re searching a library catalog or a school-provided electronic database (such as LexisNexis or Academic Search Premier), and especially when you’re doing an Internet search (on Google, for example), you might be surprised at how many resources come up. Use the following guidelines to determine whether each source is credible, relevant, and appropriate for your assignment or project:
Author. Do the author’s credentials—degrees, professional affiliations, etc.—show that they’re qualified to write about the topic? (A researcher with a PhD in biology will be a better choice for a paper about cellular respiration than will a professor of mathematics.) Consider contextual authority, too. Does the person have life experience in discussing the topic? (A sociologist living in London will have a more nuanced view of life in the UK during the Brexit debate than will a scholar based in Los Angeles.)
An article or study that does not include a byline (author’s name) may be questionable. (The author may be omitted from research that is supported or paid for by a company.) This may occur more often in online content.
Bias. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Fox News, etc., all have some sort of editorial slant. It’s not bad to have opinions (we all do!), but you’ll need to take this into account when evaluating the source of your information, says Stiffler. In other words, is there a certain perspective that that colors their reporting? Consider the information and then determine why they are making a particular point or drawing a certain conclusion.
Publication date. When was the article published, or updated? With research in medicine and the sciences, for example, the more recent the better. “The last five years is generally the cutoff for [referring to] research in medicine—but in some cases, such as cancer research, even five years is a long time,” says Brzustowicz.
“For a subject such as history, however, the best resources are going to be primary sources. So, for instance, if you’re writing about the Civil War, look for historical documents, even the letters of soldiers,” he says. “Secondary sources, such as encyclopedias and biographies, may also be appropriate sources. In an English class, you may be asked to write about a particular piece of literature—that’s the primary source.”
Give it the CRAAP test
Developed by a librarian named Sarah Blakesee and a team of librarians from California State University, Chico, the CRAAP test is a tool for quickly evaluating whether or not any resource—whether it’s television, Facebook, a meme on Twitter, and even scholarly research—is trustworthy (or a bunch of …!). CRAAP is an acronym for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose, and its meanings are well described on the Benedictine University library website:
Currency. Is the info up to date?
- When was the information published or posted?
- Has the information been revised or updated?
- Is the information current or out-of date for your topic?
- Are the links functional?
Relevance. Does the information pertain to the topic you’re researching? Is the publication relevant for your needs?
- Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
- Who is the intended audience?
- Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e., not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
- Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining this is one you will use?
- Would you be comfortable using this source for a research paper?
Authority. Is the author qualified to speak on the subject?
- Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
- Are the author’s credentials or organizational affiliations given?
- What are the author’s credentials or organizational affiliations given?
- What are the author’s qualifications to write on the topic?
- Is there contact information, such as a publisher or e-mail address?
- Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source?
- .com (commercial), .edu (educational), .gov (U.S. government)
- .org (nonprofit organization), or
- .net (network)
Accuracy. Is the content reliable, truthful, and correct? Check the original data or sources to confirm the information you’re receiving.
- Where does the information come from?
- Is the information supported by evidence?
- Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
- Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
- Does the language or tone seem biased and free of emotion?
- Are there spelling, grammar, or other typographical errors?
Purpose. What is the reason the information exists?
- What is the purpose of the information? To inform? teach? sell? entertain? persuade?
- Do the authors/sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear?
- Is the information fact? opinion? propaganda?
- Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
- Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases?
“Just like different publications have different editorial biases, so can people doing research in a lot of different fields,” says Brzustowicz. “It can be important to develop some context and discover why they are doing this in the first place and what message are they trying to communicate.” Do they have any incentives—monetary, political, or career-oriented—to mislead people or leave anything out of their research or findings?