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College Research and Writing Tutorial

Evaluating sources

The question everyone asks librarians is, "How do I find good sources?" The answer nobody likes to hear is, "it depends." What makes a source "good" depends heavily on what you're using that source for. Although we'll mostly talk about this in the context of writing, all of these same ideas apply to other forms of creating like filming videos or hosting a podcast.

The following two activities will walk you through evaluating the creatoraudiencemedium, and purpose of both your own writing as well as the sources you'll use to support your writing. Evaluating your own writing first is essential for figuring out which sources you've evaluated are the best ones to use in your own writing - choosing a source based on how well it meets your needs is far better than finding a source and then trying to figure out how to use it. Click the hotspots in the images below to learn some questions you can ask yourself about both your own writing and the sources you find.

Things to note

  • While it's important to consider these 4 aspects of sources separately, they're all interconnected, too.
    • Audience and medium are often closely linked. A group of academics will have different expectations of a conference presentation than they will of the journal article the presentation discusses.
    • Similarly, medium and purpose can be closely linked. YouTube is mostly known for its entertaining content for a general audience, but academic webinars are often uploaded to YouTube for ease of sharing.
    • Any time you change one of these things, the others may change as well.
  • It's important to keep in mind that there are no bad source types, only types that are more or less suited for your audience, medium, and purpose.
    • Social media posts are not bad sources of information if you're writing an academic paper on social media.
    • Even fake news articles are good sources if you're writing about fake news.
    • Using unconventional source types that are still appropriate for your audience, medium, and purpose is a great way of producing more interesting research.
  • Ultimately, the best sources are the ones that are most relevant to your writing and also not redundant when taken as a whole. 
    • Try to find sources that offer something unique to your research, whether that's perspective, data, or even just source type. 

On Wikipedia

  • Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia that anyone can edit. On the surface, it sounds like it would be rife with poorly sourced information, but in reality, many Wikipedia editors are experts in the fields they write about and articles are constantly being reviewed by experts as well, who diligently check sources and include notations like [citation needed] if information is unsourced.
  • Students have traditionally been discouraged from using Wikipedia, and while it's true that you wouldn't want to cite information directly from a Wikipedia article, these articles are a great place to learn background information about a topic and find scholarly sources in the Reference section.
    • If you read information in a Wikipedia article that you'd like to cite in your paper, check to see if that information has a citation associated with it in the Reference section. You'll want to get a copy of the referenced information for your paper rather than cite the Wikipedia article. Beginning with a website you know, like Wikipedia, is a great way to start finding scholarly sources for your research.
    • Be careful to look out for the conventions of scholarly articles like the typical Abstract/Introduction/Method/Results/Discussion format of APA or formal academic language when trying to determine if an article cited on Wikipedia is scholarly. When in doubt, ask a librarian! We're here to help.

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