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Evaluating Information

Listed below are some general guidelines to consider when evaluating information resources.

Is it Relevant to your topic? The title of a book or article is a good first indication, but you often need to look further to fully evaluate relevancy. Abstracts (brief summaries) and keywords are often provided with articles and can usually give you a good indication of relevancy. For books you can scan the preface, table of contents and index of a work to get a good overview.

What is the author's purpose? Some works are clearly intended as either an opinion piece (e.g., editorial) or an objective study ( e.g., scientific experiment). There is, however, a vast range of literature in which an author's bias may not be explicitly stated. Use reference sources such as citation and book review indexes to see what else the author has published and try to determine whether there is a discernable pattern. Noting the publisher of a work (e.g., a trade association) may also be useful in determining purpose.

What kind of source is it? Scholarly journals ( e.g., New England Journal of Medicine) usually contain specialized articles written by experts in a particlular discipline, while general magazines ( e.g., Newsweek) often contain less technical articles written by reporters or magazine staff members. Unlike general magazines, the articles in most scholarly journals usually go through a peer review process in which other experts in the author's discipline review the article before it is accepted for publication.

How current is the information? The importance of currency will depend on the type of research you are interested in. In certain scientific fields currency is vital in order to keep up with the rapid pace of research. Currency is important in many humanities fields as well, but it is not as vital a factor as it is in the sciences.

What about the Internet? All of the above criteria apply when evaluating Internet resources. In addition, you should also consider these factors when evaluating Websites:

  • Type of site: The URL domain (e.g., .edu) tells you generally what type of site it is.
    • .edu = educational
    • .gov = government
    • .com = commercial
    • .org = organization
  • Personal or Official: Is the Website officially sponsored by an organization or is it an individuals personal site or page?
  • Stability/Reliability: Remember that the Internet has neither the stability nor the regulatory mechanisms of traditional print sources. Individual sites and pages frequently come and go and it is relatively easy to publish on the Web.
  • Links: Most Websites contain links to other sites that may or may not be reliable, useful etc. Remember to apply the same evaluation criteria to all sites regardless of how you got there.

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