Finding, citing & evaluating articles: evaluating


You evaluate articles the same way you do everything else:  you look at relevance, quality, currency, bias, etc.  In fact, articles are the easiest thing to evaluate, with one big IF.

The easy part is that most articles make it easy for you to find the information you need.  The IF  is:  IF you use the right kind of article.

What’s the right kind of article?  The right kind of article is one that gives you the information you need to do a proper evaluation.  Where do you find these articles?

  • library article databases
  • scholarly search engines (Google Scholar,Pubmed)
    • these search engines find sources other than journal articles.  You are responsible for knowing the difference.
    • Bing, Yahoo, regular Google, Duckduckgo, etc. are not scholarly search engines.
  • the general web – if you feel like wasting time.
    •  Yes, you will occasionally get lucky.
    • If you use really technical keywords and search Google, it assumes you think you’re using  Google Scholar and may pop some decent – good articles to the top.  If you click the links, you’ll go to Google Scholar, so you might as well start there.
  • Often, the easy way to develop a bibliography of good articles is to check a specialty encyclopedia (not World Book or the Encyclopedia Britannica) or a scholarly book on the subject.  Use the library catalog or Electronic Journals link on the library’s website to see if we own the sources you find in a specialty encyclopedia.
  • This is also one of the legitimate uses of Wikipedia.  One of the signs of a good Wikipedia article is that it has a good reference list and notes.  However, you must still look at the source and decide if it’s a.)  an article and b.) a good source.  So you might as well start with library article databases.

Finding your article in a good source is an easy way to get a good article.  However, no matter how good the source, you still need to evaluate the article.  You need to make sure that the article is relevant, that it fits your needs, and that the quality is good.  Most articles in library databases or Google Scholar are good, but bad ones creep in occasionally.

Relevancy – Yes, you can make almost any article seem relevant.  Having said that, this is not a game where you try to beat, pound, pry, stuff, strangle  and otherwise manipulate an article into relevancy.  The idea is to start at the right place and end up with a directly relevant, high quality article.  Doing so saves a lot of time in the long run.

Fits your needs – “Fits your needs” does not mean:  the first thing you find that’s more or less on topic.  “Fits your needs” means it fits what you need for the assignment you’re doing.   It means you use a scholarly journal article when asked for one instead of trying to sneak a Wikipedia article past your instructor.  It means following the assignment instructions.  It means   asking for help and clarification as needed.

Good quality –  Good quality means that when you go through the evaluation checklist, your article meets all or most of the criteria.

You use the same checklist for books, articles and web sources; however, you focus on slightly different things.  For example:  with books, you look at publisher; for articles you look at the magazine, newspaper, journal or web source.  For all sources, you look at the authors and their affiliation.  If there aren’t identifiable authors, this is usually a sign to stay away from the source.   (Exception:  some sources, especially government and organization documents – online or print – have corporate authors; that is, the organization acts as the author.  Also, some magazine and newspaper articles may not have authors listed.)

Peer review is critical when trying to determine if an article is scholarly.  Peer reviewed means that other experts have looked at an article and determined that it’s worthy of publication.  Library databases help with this by identifying articles as scholarlyacademic, peer reviewed, or refereed (= peer reviewed.)

CAUTION:  There are two important issues with article database identification of scholarly journals:

  1. There are some journals that instructors disagree about (scholarly vs trade vs popular)
    1. These are generally trade/scholarly  journals in areas like marketing, teaching, criminal justice, etc.
    2. The specific instructor you are doing the research for wins when  there is a question about the scholarly nature of an article or journal.
  2. All scholarly journals have non-scholarly articles in them.  These include:
    1. Letters
    2. Editorials & opinion pieces
    3. Book reviews

Remember to use commonsense!

Relevance – will it be useful?

  • Is the information directly related to your topic?
    • If you’re writing a paper on how ballerinas dance on their toes, a resource about ballroom dancing isn’t acceptable; an article on counting probably isn’t acceptable;  an article on ballerinas and foot injuries probably is related.
  • Is there enough information?
    • With rare exceptions, such as statistics and facts, you need an absolute minimum  of 2-3 paragraphs of information for a source to be useful.
  • Why do you think it will be useful?
    • How will you use the information?  As evidence to support your research question?  As an example?
  • Is it the right kind of information?
    • If you have to use scholarly sources, then magazines, newspapers and general websites won’t work.

Credibility – is the information accurate?

  • Have you found similar information somewhere else?  
    • If you’ve found similar information in a different scholarly source, it’s probably accurate.  EXCEPTION:  if you look at two older articles and a newer one that disagrees, you need to check another new article – it’s probable views have changed over time.
  • Does the author provide evidence and examples to support  his/her information
    • If an author says people prefer Coke to Pepsi, does s/he provide information from studies and research on the topic?
  • Is the author an expert on the subject? 
    • What is the source of his expertise – education?  experience?
    • Can you tell what else the author has published?  Is it scholarly?   Popular, but in a respected magazine such as Archaeology or  Scientific American?
  • Is there a way to contact the author?
    • Is there an email address?  An institutional affiliation (where they work)?
  • Are there references or a bibliography?
    • If you can use the sources and links to find other information, this is a good sign the information is accurate.
  • Is the information peer reviewed or edited?

    • Edited means at least one other person looked at the information and okayed it.  Peer review means 2-3 specialists in the field have okayed publication.  Editing is mostly found in popular sources.  Peer reviewed (or refereed) is found in scholarly sources.  Both indicate the source should be credible.
  • For websites:
    • Is the information easy to find?
      • Can you find the author, sponsoring group, date created, etc.?  The better organized the site, the more likely it is a good source.
    • Is it a .edu, .gov or .org website?
      • These sites tend to be more accurate (but not always – for example, students can often post information on .edu sites.)
    • Are there a lot of ads?  Is the site trying to sell something?
      • Some of these sites are good, but be sure to check for relevance, etc.

Currency – how new is it?

  • Do you need current information?
    • If you’re writing on the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage,  your sources need to be very current.  If you’re writing on the pyramids in Egypt, older material may be helpful, but the majority of your sources should be from the last 10-15 years.  They’re still discovering new things about the pyramids
  • Can you tell when the  information was created?
    • This can be hard on a website.  A website without a date is usually not a good source.

Objectivity – is there a bias?

  • Does the information clearly support only one side of an issue?
    • The Sierra Club website has a different view on logging than Pacific Lumber Company.
  • Is the author trying to persuade you to come over to his/her view?
    • A website claiming the Beatles are the best band ever is probably not a good source of information on bands in the Sixties.
  • Does the information try to show both sides?
    • These sources are often a better, but be careful.  The author is picking and choosing his/her information.
    • There can be bias even where the author is trying to be objective.

Most information is biased to some degree.  The trick is to be aware of the bias and work with it.

  • Use the Sierra Club and Pacific Lumber Company websites as examples of opposing viewpoints.
  • Use a website trying to persuade you to vote for a candidate as an example of campaign techniques in the U.S.



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