If you’ve been working on your first set of assignments, you might be slightly bewildered by all the information out there. There are so many places you can look for information, but not everything you find will be useful or reliable. Even when you’ve found a good source, you might struggle with how to include the information in your assignment without just repeating what the author has said.

This is where evaluating sources comes in. Of course you want to decide whether the information is accurate and relevant to your assignment, but assessing the strengths and limitations of your sources can also be an important part of analysis or critical appraisal in your writing.

This process is easier if you break it into two stages: a quick evaluation of whether a source is worth reading in detail, and a more in-depth evaluation which will inform your writing.

1. Quick checks

You won’t have time to read in detail every resource which might be related to your topic, so you need to start by deciding which sources are worth spending more time on. One approach is to look for the “Three Rs”: relevant, reviewed, and reputable.

Relevant

You probably already know your sources should be relevant to the assignment topic! However, one thing to look out for is when a source has something in common with your topic, but doesn’t help you address it.

E.g. Imagine you have the following essay question:

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm’. Do you believe that attitudes to privacy have been fundamentally changed by the rise of social media?

Would an article about Mark Zuckerberg making a large donation to charity be relevant for this essay? It might seem so at first glance, because the topic mentions him. However, the question is really about attitudes to privacy, not Zuckerberg himself.

Reviewed

“Reviewed” here means “peer review”, a process that scholarly journal articles go through before they are published. Peer reviewed articles are regarded as more authoritative than most sources, and for many assignments you will be expected to use mostly peer reviewed sources.

Library Search and most of the library databases have a checkbox which will limit your results to peer reviewed journals.

 

Reputable

There’s a lot of useful information outside scholarly journals, but you need to be a bit more careful about what you trust. Look for reputable sources, such as:

  • Academic publishers and university presses. Most books in the Library are in this category.
  • Government bodies (e.g. Australian Bureau of Statistics)
  • Respected non-government organisations (e.g. World Health Organization)

If you haven’t heard of a person or organisation, look them up. For example, the Alliance of Australian Retailers sounds like an association for shop owners. However, a web search will show that it’s funded by tobacco companies to lobby against regulation of cigarettes – not very reliable!

2. Going deeper

Evaluating your sources isn’t just about avoiding “bad” sources. How you interpret your sources should always be informed by context, and even good, reliable sources have limitations.

For example, let’s say you’re researching for that essay we mentioned above about attitudes to privacy. You find a study in a peer reviewed journal in which American university students were surveyed about social media and privacy. That’s a good academic source, but the opinions of American university students might not reflect the views of everyone. To address this limitation, you could look for surveys from other countries or population groups, compare the results, and explain why they might be different (or similar).

Considering what evidence your sources provide and how it fits into the specific context of your assignment shows that you really understand what you’ve read, as well as the broader context of your field. It’s part of what markers are looking for when they ask you to demonstrate critical thinking or analysis.

So remember, evaluating sources doesn’t have to be a pain:

  • Look for the “three Rs”: relevant, reviewed, reputable
  • Consider the context when interpreting your sources
  • Show that consideration in your writing.

Writer Clinton Bell is a librarian at the Law Library