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Evaluating sources

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We often speak to students who are wondering what their assignment feedback means: ‘too many websites’, ‘cite more journals’, ‘read more widely’. How can we interpret such comments?

This might be partly dependent on your subject: for example, in English Literature we might expect more books to be referenced, while in Education we might expect to see reference to Government policy documents which are found on websites. In Health and Medicine we would want to refer to the latest evidence on ‘what works’ from systematic reviews and research papers, and in Business we might expect to see company reports, statistics and financial data. In History, older information and primary sources might be expected, but in other subjects you might need to use more recent publications and more secondary sources (textbooks and articles discussing and reviewing other people’s research and theories). It is important to ask your tutors about your feedback so you can use it to improve your writing next time.

Your assignment feedback might also refer to the quality and selection of sources in your work. Tutors want to see that you have read more than just the lecture notes, and have gone beyond the suggested reading. Broadly speaking, textbooks, peer-reviewed journal articles, and papers from well-known research organisations and researchers may be looked upon more favourably in your work, in comparison to certain websites, Wikipedia, news articles or trade magazines. We like this visual presentation which explains ‘the Fishscale of Academicness’, and demonstrates ways we might search in an ‘ocean’ of information to find quality sources (Groppel-Wegener, 2013).

Selecting sources for your academic work depends on the nature of your research topic and subject. You should always consider the purpose, authority and currency of the information you are citing in your work, wherever it comes from, print or online.

Normally, as a student, you would be expected to select, read and reference sources which are:

  • relevant to the assignment or research topic (purposeful)
  • written or produced by reputable and knowledgeable people or organisations (authoritative)
  • up to date and in line with the latest research, policy or practice (current)

There are some useful evaluation tools on the internet, including Towlson, Leigh and Mathers (2009) information source evaluation matrix, which helps you to score a source against the criteria ‘who, what, where, when and why’, which we look at in more detail below.

Finding and evaluating sources yourself can seem like a daunting prospect, especially if you are new to your discipline, but your Academic Liaison Librarians can help. Just ask.

Tabs

What?

What is being said?

Is the information supported with evidence, and is the information correct to the best of your knowledge? Does the source include facts (with evidence) or opinions? Do not assume a source is correct and can stand alone in your work. Compare what you’ve have read with other sources and show that you have considered these in your writing.

Who?

Who has written the information?

If it is a person, what is their background and why are they a credible source of information? You might have heard of them before, or perhaps your tutors have recommended them. You could also look at their professional profiles either online, or in their books or articles.

If the author is an organisation, find out more about them (the ‘about us’ link on a website is often useful). This might help you to judge whether there is potential for bias in their information. References are a good clue as to the authority of any source too, as those references should have influenced and informed the source you are reading.

Reffie letter Y

You might also ask: who has the information been written for? If a source has been written for a specific audience (such as parents, children, or employees), then its language and purpose could make it an unsuitable source to cite in your academic work. Of course, this depends on the nature of your research topic.

Where?

Where has the information come from?

Is the source from the UK, or is it from another country? This isn’t to say that you cannot use research or information which has originated from another country. If you have a purpose for referring to policies, statutory guidance, evidence and research from another country, then do so, and make this clear in your writing. For example, you might be comparing approaches between the UK and elsewhere. 

Be careful not to fall into the trap of assuming that a piece of research or policy is relevant to the UK, and writing about it as if it was. If you are unsure about the geographical context of a source, here are some clues:

  • Terminology: for example, ‘elementary school’ versus ‘primary school’
  • Abstract: journal articles and books will often provide the context for the work in the abstract, summary or introduction
  • URL domain: usually .edu is used for the websites of US educational establishments; .org for non-profit organisations; gov.uk for UK government departments; and ac.uk for UK academic institutions.
  • Contact details: websites should provide contact information for the organisations or people behind them, such as email, postal address and telephone number. This is also useful for finding out more about who wrote the information.

When?

Is the information up to date? (Does it need to be?)

For example, are you looking at the latest Government policy/guidance, or the latest research on a topic? Is older information relevant to your work, and if so, do you need to make this explicit in your writing?

Books can take up to several years to be published. While it is useful to gain an overview from books, it is also important to look for the latest research available in journal articles, and through research and academic institutions.

The Government often consults on changes to policy through White and Green Papers, and these are usually available online. It is important to look at the date of the material you find on Government websites to make sure you are using the most current statutory guidance in your work, if this is relevant to your topic.

Many webpages (and PDF documents found on websites) should provide a date of publication, or ‘last updated’ information, although sometimes you might have to do a bit of work to find this. If you cannot find a date of publication, you must ask yourself if the information is credible and relevant enough for your academic work. 

Why?

Why has the information been written?

It is important to know who has written a source, because they may have an agenda. For example, an organisation with a product to sell may focus on opinion or research which show their product in a positive light, whereas an independent research body might be more objective, considering a range of authoritative sources.

Where the information is published will give an indication of its purpose and audience. Information in an academic textbook, peer-reviewed journal article, or ac.uk website is more likely to be aimed at academics and students than books, magazines and websites written for the general public.

Reference List

Groppel-Wegener, A. (2013) The Fishscale of Academicness – stand-alone resource. Available at: https://prezi.com/rx72wakhiqrw/the-fishscale-of-academicness-stand-alone-resource (Accessed: 22 August 2016).

Towlson, K., Leigh, M. and Mathers, L. (2009) ‘The information source evaluation matrix: a quick, easy and transferable content evaluation tool’, SCONUL Focus, 47, pp.15-19. Available at: http://www.sconul.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/5_5.pdf (Accessed: 18 August 2016).

Also worth a look (especially for Who/What/Where/When/Why): 

Oxford Brookes University (2014) Evaluating web resources. Available at: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/library/library-services/information-skills/evaluating-web-sources/ (Accessed: 22 August 2016).

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