Source Evaluation

What is source evaluation?

Referring to sources is a vital part of scientific communication. There could be a wide range of relevant sources within your field of study and so you need to assess whether they are useable for academic writing.

It is sensible to find earlier research that may support your argument for a certain viewpoint. These sources should be of sufficient quality.

The advice on this page is meant as a guide in the process of assessing sources for writing at university-level. Which sources are suitable for your essay would be dependent on the context, and must be assessed individually. Nevertheless, there are some general rules you should be aware of whenever you assess a source.

Is the author credible?

The author’s credibility is essential in deciding whether you should use the source. What authority does the author have? Does she have formal competencies, is she associated with an academic institution, does she show knowledge on the field of research and is she basing her conclusions on credible sources?

The Internet allows everyone to publish anything they want. It is easy and affordable, and therefore information found on a webpage may not always be written by experts. The information may be inaccurate or completely wrong. Most webpages do not have editors or specialists who review what is published.

  • Find information on the author’s academic background. What education does the author have? Is there any other information about the author?
  • Search for the author online and cross-reference the author’s information.
  • Does the author have the right qualifications to say something about the subject at hand?
  • If the source is published as academic work, then check if the author has a background as a researcher. Try to find the author’s affiliation. Most researchers are affiliated to universities, university colleges or research organizations.
  • Is the responsible author a person, an organization, or a public agency?
  • Has the author written other things on the same subject? Check the publications by searching for the author in Oria or other library databases (In ISI Web of Science, Scopus or Google Scholar, you can see who has cited the author).
  • Is the author anonymous? This may weaken the author’s credibility.

What is a scholarly article?

Scientists publish scientific articles to show new research results.

A scholarly article should fulfill several requirements:

  • Research results that are presented should give new insight into a subject.
  • The results must be verifiable, so that they may be used in further research.
  • The scholarly article must be read, assessed and approved by the author’s peers before it is published. This is called peer review.
  • The scholarly article must always contain citations and correct bibliography.
  • New knowledge is built on existing knowledge, and a scholarly article will always cite the previous research it is built on. This is done by citations and bibliographies.
  • A scholarly article is most often published in a scholarly journal, published by a publishing house or an organization, but it may also be published in a scholarly anthology (a collection of articles with an editor).
  • A scholarly article should be written in a language that many understand.

How to check your sources: 

  • The scholarly article must be peer-reviewed. On the publisher’s website, you can find out if a journal has been peer-reviewed. Here is an example of the journal Nature and of Nordic cultural policy journal.
  • A scholarly article should be written in a language that many understand. If the article is of international interest, it is often written in English.
  • Always check that the bibliography is easy to follow and correct. The references should be given in such a way that you easily can retrieve the given sources. Here you will find examples of how references should be given.
  • A scholarly article is structured and organized. It has good illustrations and clear figure texts and tables with text where necessary. Scholarly articles are often built on the IMRAD structure: Introduction, Method, Result, and Discussion.
  • A scholarly article always has a good abstract that provides a description of the article’s content. The abstract is given at the top of the article, often in smaller font size.
  • It must be clear where the article has been published. In what book or journal is the article found, and where in the publication? Note that the pages must be numbered.
  • Modern articles should have a DOI (Direct Object Identifier). A DOI is used to locate an article online.
  • It might be a good idea to consider how you located the article. Do you trust the webpage where the article was published? There are a number of journals that are published by questionable publishers. Read more here. Did you use a search engine like Google/Bing? If yes, you should check it thoroughly.
  • Academic libraries’ webpages are good portals to high-quality information. You can also trust recommendations from your supervisor, or a referral from another peer-reviewed article.

Does the article follow the standard research design?

Scholarly articles are often built around the IMRAD structure: Introduction, Method, Result And Discussion

A Scholarly article should have:

  • information about which journal the article has been published in
  • clear title
  • information about who the author is
  • a good abstract
  • description of methodology
  • description of results
  • good discussion
  • clear figures and tables with text
  • conclusion
  • citations and bibliography
  • good, objective language
  • clear page numbers

Considering non-scholarly articles

Journal articles published outside the academic realm may also contain scientific information and news. These articles tend to be of a popular science style, and written to reach a wide range of readers. Hence, they are not as detailed and well-documented. Examples of this are journals like Geo, Sykepleien, Fontene, and similar. Such articles should be assessed with other criteria than a scholarly article.

  • Is the source a balanced and objective account of the topic, or is it biased?
  • Are there any conflicts of interest?
  • Does the content challenge or confirm information you already have?
  • Are the arguments and reasoning reasonable and structured?

Are there any references in the source?

Does the source show that it is based on research? A scientific source will always contain information about the research it is built on. Treat the source with caution if no such information is provided. The bibliography will give the reader a brief overview and determines to what degree relevant research is included. Bibliography and in-text citations add to the credibility of sources.

  • Does the book contain a bibliography?
  • Is the book’s reasoning based on other credible sources?
  • What academic level is the book written for?
  • Are the in-text citations tidy and correct? Are they listed in the bibliography?
  • Has the bibliography been organized in a tidy fashion?
  • Are there any unsupported assertions or facts in the source?

Language and layout

Reliable sources should be written without errors and typos, where central concepts are used consistently and correctly. The reliability is reduced in cases where the language is poor, and the use of concepts appears to be random.

  • Is the language informal or formal containing academic concepts?
  • Is it a consistent language? Has the author kept one style throughout her account of the topic?
  • Has the author used academic concepts in a way that makes sense?
  • Is it well written, without spelling mistakes and is it well-formulated?
  • Is the source tidy and structured, or are there unnecessary illustrations and pictures with an unclear layout?
  • Is the text logically built?
  • Are figures and tables clear and easy to read?
  • Is the information clear?

Who is the responsible publisher?

A source published through a trusted publisher will give it greater credibility. Check previous publications from the publisher, reviews, and if they are affiliated with e.g. a university.
If the book is published on a trusted publisher, it will add to the book’s source value. Is the publisher associated with an academic institution like a university?

  • Is the publisher trusted? What other sources have been published by this publisher?
  • Who owns the publishing house?
  • There are both Norwegian and international ranking systems for publishers of academic literature that may help you to determine their quality and relevance.
  • What is the publisher’s reputation? Is it a commercial publisher or an academic one contributing to knowledge in a research area?
  • Concerning webpages, you should check who the responsible publishers are, and what purpose the publication has. Is there any information about these details?
  • Is it possible to contact the publisher? The domain name tells you which country the server is located in and what type of organization this is.
  • If the publisher is anonymous, it may weaken the credibility.
  • Public documents are published by the department responsible. It should be clearly stated who is accountable.
  • Newspapers may be political or otherwise biased. Therefore, the news and articles can be described from a certain viewpoint. Be aware of this when you consider the objectivity of the source.

Is the source still current?

Evaluating the relevance of the source is important when you consider using it. The information should be up to date and current.

Sources may become outdated. If you are going to rely on research results, they should have been published within a certain timeframe, dependent on the field of research. In fields such as medical research and information technology, information sources become outdated more rapidly than in other fields.

In most cases, you would want to retrieve the most recent information – use the last and updated versions of sources if, for instance, you are looking for facts or statistical data.

Keep in mind that older sources of information may also be relevant in certain academic fields. If you are looking for information about historical conditions, you may consider using sources close to the event of interest.  Some sources are considered seminal, and their recognition within the academic field is close to being timeless. Aristotle, Newton, Kant, and Einstein are examples of renowned authors that will be counted as relevant and safe sources to rely on, independent of time. Likewise, some research reports have a status as being seminal: The Milgram-experiment, The Rosenthal-effect, Semmelweis’ discoveries, and several others. Piaget and Vygotsky are examples of renowned theorists who have developed theories and concepts upon which contemporary knowledge is constructed. In such cases, older sources would be of relevance.

  • Has there been a development in the field of study after the source was published?
  • Is the content of the source, such as numbers, statistics, findings and research methods, up to date?
  • Are there new or revised editions of the source? You can check the library databases.
  • For webpages, check when it was published, and when it was last updated. The date may be relatively recent, but there is still no way to know what kind of update was made at the time. If the webpage has not been updated for some time, it may reveal a lack of management or resources. It is important that you compare the content with other sources of information.

Does the source show a high academic level?

Academic articles and books are published by scientists to make research visible. Academic articles are often published in academic journals with responsible publishers, but may also be part of an anthology (a collection of articles with editors).

There are various requirements for an academic source. A scientific source is quality-assured by peer-reviewing. That means that one or more researchers within the same area of research read and approves the content before it is published. You will find information about the publisher’s peer-reviewing procedures on their webpage.

You may limit your results to peer-reviewed material only when you search library databases.

  • Will the presented research results provide new insight?
  • Are the results possible to recreate so they can be part of later research?
  • Has the source been peer-reviewed?
  • Are sources credited correctly in the text and the list of references?

With what purpose has the source been written?

You have to consider whether you are informed of facts and well-documented research. The author may wish to convince you or sell you something. Beware of great words such as: the best, the fastest, the most reliable, the safest, the greatest, the biggest and last, but not least: all research shows that…

  • Does the author actually know what they are talking about? Has the author published something on this subject in respected journals? Search the library databases.
  • Has the author published anything about the topic through a reputed publisher?
  • Does the source illuminate several sides of the presented subject?
  • Is the topic controversial? (e.g. climate change and topics on health- or nutrition). Make sure to get a broad picture of the current debate and find actual research about the topic.
  • Does the source give information about which special field is covered and what level it is written for?
  • Are the sources listed, and are they of high quality?

Is the source original?

Sources are often divided into primary and secondary. Some coursebooks are examples of secondary sources since they provide an overview of current research. As a rule of thumb, you should find and refer to the primary source.

Sometimes information is copied from one source to another. The original source may not be cited and the content can have been altered. Hence, topics can be decontextualized, and presented in a manner that promotes certain viewpoints. The presentation could thus be distorted and lead to misinterpretations.

Translated sources may contain errors. If possible, use and refer to the original source.

  • Is the webpage in its’ original form, or has someone altered the content?
  • Is the content consistent? Do you suspect that the copy-past-function has been utilized frequently?
  • Have the sources been credited?
  • Are there reasons to believe the source has been translated from another language?