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Evaluating Sources

About this guide

Welcome! This guide contains recommendations and strategies related to evaluating sources in the context of academic writing. It was developed with First-Year Writing Seminars in mind, but we hope that these tips and activities will be helpful to anyone who is grappling with finding and incorporating a variety of sources into their research and writing. We've included a page with suggested activities that faculty might share with their students.

Even though this guide contains separate pages on finding sources and evaluating sources, these two activities are interconnected. We recommend thinking of your work with sources as an evolving, iterative process, not as discrete tasks.

Why do we care about sources?

The intersection of research and writing can be seen in how writers engage with sources. Sources are "evidence": the materials on which writers base their arguments, as well as a record of conversations within and across disciplines. The sources we find can push our thinking and writing in new or unexpected directions. We also want to acknowledge the ideas that inspire us and give credit by citing sources accurately.

What is a good (appropriate) source?

Rather than thinking in terms of "good" or "bad" sources, we recommend considering the appropriateness of a source. The criteria you use to determine if a source is appropriate to your project will include a variety of factors - and your criteria will likely change from one paper or course to the next. In addition to using the evaluation methods on this page, consider:

What your professor requires for the assignment.

If you are expected to incorporate five scholarly sources, three of which are articles, you’ll need to determine a) if your sources are scholarly, and b) what types of materials you’ve identified (articles, book chapters, entire books, etc.).

What makes a source scholarly? This often means that it has undergone the process of peer review, in which experts in the field read and comment on an article before it’s published; the author(s) will often revise the article based on reviewers’ feedback. Other scholarly sources can include monographs (books) and chapters in edited volumes. Scholarly doesn’t necessarily refer to who has written a source, but how the source was produced and published.

The types of sources that speak to your research question.

There are many different types of sources: not just books and articles, but also data sets, sound recordings, films, images, unpublished manuscripts, archival materials, and more. Depending on your research question, you may need to consult a variety of types of sources. 

Different types of sources are found in different places. There usually isn't one single place to go to find every possible type of source you may need. Library Search (Vassar's catalog and discovery platform) is a great start, but you'll also want to check out a variety of databases and subject-focused resources, too. Check out the Methods of Finding Sources section of this guide  for strategies.

The conventions of your discipline (the course or subject area).

Different fields often have different concerns related to sources. Check out the guide to Evaluating Sources for STEM Students for a deep-dive into evaluating sources in the sciences. 

Another example: You may hear your professors talk about “primary sources” - but a “primary source” in history is not the same as a “primary source” in physics.

Primary sources in humanities and social sciences fields are often first-hand or contemporary accounts of a topic or event; typical primary sources include news articles, diaries, letters, manuscripts, and photographs. Secondary sources analyze topics/events, and could be books, articles, works of criticism, etc.

Primary sources in STEM fields are original scientific research. Secondary sources in the sciences describe, analyze, or review scientific research.

Sometimes a secondary source in one field can be a primary source in another, and vice versa. A biology textbook from the 1920s doesn’t contain the most current scientific research - but to a historian of science in the 2020s, this textbook may be a primary source that illuminates the teaching of biology in the early 20th century.

How to cite sources

As you’re gathering and evaluating sources, remember that you’ll also need to cite them.