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Evaluating Your Sources

Tutorial for evaluating source material

Article Types

Example

Cover of Comparative Political Studies with CPS and full title written and elongated image of the world against a plain green faded background

Note that cover art for scholarly publications is rather plain in comparison to the other types of resources you'll find.

Content

Articles recount original research, theory investigations, or field issue analyses. Article contents often follow a structure, such as abstract, method, discussion, and conclusion. Throughout the article, you may find tables, graphs, and in-text citations. These typically have few or no ads.
 

Audience

Because the articles are written with academic or technical jargon, the typical reader is someone with experience, a researcher, or a professional in the field.
 

Authors

Articles are often written by those like your professors, who are researchers, scholars, and/or professionals in the field. Somewhere in the article it likely lists the author's credentials and affiliations. 
 

Accountability

The journal will have an editorial board or have a peer-review process before the publisher prints. The publisher will likely be a university, a scholarly press, or an academic organization.
 

Reference Use

There will always be references at the end or throughout as footnotes.
 

Where To Find

Example

Cover image of Bloomberg Businessweek with business related topics listed

Content

The article is about current news, trends, forecasts, or employment opportunities. Any ads inside will be relevant to the industry itself such as products or professional organizations.
 

Audience

Because it is written for those within a specific industry, trade, or organization, it may have some specialized terminology throughout.
 

Authors

The articles are written by practitioners in the field, industry professionals, or journalists with subject expertise.
 

Accountability

The publisher, who will be a commercial publisher or a professional organization, will have a paid editor.
 

Reference Use

There will sometimes be in-text citations or a short reference section in the article.
 

Where To Find

Example

Cover image for Us Weekly includes numerous images of celebrities on a colorful cover.

Content

Articles appear sleek and glossy, often with inset pictures, enhanced text for easier skimming, and vibrant colors. Topics are typically framed in a popular culture context and articles are written for entertainment purposes. Ads, both inset and full page, are widely used throughout the publication.
 

Audience

The audience for a magazine article is the "average" person. They are typically written at a grade school reading level to accommodate a wide variety of readers.
 

Authors

Authors may or may not be known for magazine articles. Real names of some authors may be listed, while other articles may be attributed to "staff" writers or completely omit any reference to the article's author. Credentials are rarely listed. 
 

Accountability

Magazines are written to make money. Freelance and staff writers are often paid on a per article basis, whereby they sign over their rights to the material in order to receive payment. A magazine's editorial board reviews content for audience appeal but not necessarily accuracy. 
 

Reference Use

References may be listed occasionally. They may be noted in an image caption, as an example, but it is rare to find a formal References list in a magazine publication.
 

Where To Find

Example

Cover of the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper with articles written in vertical columns down the page and large text headlines

Note that the appearance of a newspaper source differs from other sources. Newspapers may be stapled or folded, and are typically printed on newsprint. Newsprint paper lacks gloss or protective coating, so newspaper ink is more likely to stick on your fingers. Many newspapers are also printed in clearly defined columns.

Content

Newspapers are written to inform readers of current events, either locally or nationally. They may be published weekly or daily, and include factual as well as editorial information, obituaries, and community calendars. Ads are typically included, but isolated to certain areas or used in order to fill space. Ads may also be included as a separate insert after the paper was printed.
 

Audience

Newspaper articles are written for a general audience and are typically constructed at a grade school reading level. 

 

Authors

Articles may be written by staff writers or members of a local community. Authors may or may not be listed with an article, or the article may note that it was obtained through another news outlet such as the AP news feed.  
 

Accountability

Newspapers typically have an editor or team of editors. Editors may quickly fact check parts of articles or make adjustments based on grammar. There typically is no peer review process. The publication strategy of a newspaper is ultimately determined by the owning entity, whether that is an individual, group, or corporation.
 

Reference Use

Some articles may include references to source material, but there is no formal References list in a newspaper publication.
 

Where To Find

Peer-Review

Not all scholarly sources are peer-reviewed. All peer-reviewed sources are scholarly.

What is Peer-Review?

Peer-review is publishing process where articles are rigorously reviewed by other scholars in the field for quality and validity. In a proper peer review process, articles may be rejected or be sent back to the author for revision before publication.

Issues in Peer-Review

Not all journals that claim to be peer-reviewed are. They may to be peer-reviewed to have better profits, inflate an author's publishing list, or may just be mislabeled in a database. Regardless, the need-to-know lesson is that even a peer-reviewed article should still be carefully SCRAAP'ed.

For a powerful example of poor peer-review, see below.

Books

Book publishers typically have an editorial process, but in the age of self-publishing, not all books may go through the rigor of peer review. Even when information is published in a book, the SCRAAP test should be applied to evaluate the information. Books can carry some of the same issues as other information. Some key places to look:

  • Authors
    Are author(s) named on the resource? Can you find information about the author(s) other places? Have they published other works in the field? Author information can be located in the following places: front/back cover, cover flaps, title page, publication page. Additional clues may be found in the dedication or preface area. 
     
  • Reference Page
    Check References for accuracy. Resources may be listed within chapters as footnotes or endnotes. You may also find longer lists of References at the end of the publication. Can you locate these same resources via the web or a library with the information in the citations provided? How old are the materials used? Can you find reliable source material that is more recent?
     
  • Publisher
    Is publisher information clearly displayed? Look for publisher information on the cover, title page, cover flaps, and publication page. Does the publisher have a website? Does the publisher produce materials on a wide variety of topics? Do materials through this publisher require peer review?

Organizations

Organizations can go to great lengths to mask who they are or their true intent. Here are a few ways you can try to learn more in addition to the SCRAAP test:

  • Reputation
    • Are you able to tell what other affiliations the organization has or causes its members support?
    • Who funds the organization? Does the organization list its donors? Is the organization easily researched?
  • Mission
    • Is the mission clearly stated? What biases may be present in the execution of the group's mission? 
  • Content
    • Do you find instances of "loaded language" in advertisements, web content, or other organizational publications? Loaded language is phrasing that appeals to emotions or uses stereotypes in order to further an organization's cause.
    • When information is presented, does the organization do so equally among all sides?
    • What is the leadership structure of the organization? Can you easily find out who is in charge, and locate home office and contact information?

Websites

Consider the following when you are evaluating a website:

Currency

  • When was the site last updated?
  • Are there dead links on the site?
  • How old is the information presented, and will it still fit your research needs?

Relevance

  • Does the information provided support your topic?
  • Does the site provide you all of the information that you need, or will you need to fill in some gaps?
  • What is the scope of the site? Is it too broad or too narrow?

Authority

  • Who is the author or creator of the content? Are their credentials listed?
  • Who publishes or sponsors the site? Are they an authority on the topic or issue?
  • What can you learn about the site from the URL? 
    • .com- used for businesses and commercial enterprises
    • .edu- used by educational institutions
    • .gov- used by government agencies
    • .org- used by organizations and non-profit entities

Accuracy

  • Can you find other resources that present the same information presented on this site?
  • Does the information contradict what you know to be true about the topic?
  • Does the site list its sources? Do those sources also pass the CRAAP test?
  • Are there spelling or grammatical errors on the site?

Purpose

  • Is the purpose of the site clearly stated?
  • Does it appear to be mostly opinion, fact, or opinion based on fact?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the language simple and easy to understand or filled with jargon and industry-specific terminology?
  • Does the site contain an "about" section or area with information about the site's creator(s) to help you determine mission, point of view, or agenda?
  • Can you find valid contact information on the site easily?

All of the attributes above should be weighed equally. A red flag in one area might invalidate the information presented on the site, or you should try to verify the information elsewhere.