Table of Contents
- What Is a “Good” Source?
- What Does “Peer Reviewed” Mean?
- How Can I Determine the Bias and Background of an Author?
- Are Online Sources Trustworthy?
- What Should I Do about Websites with Ads?
What Is a “Good” Source?
There are four main questions to ask when judging what is and is not a “good” source:
- Who wrote it?
- How does the author support his or her ideas?
- When was it written?
- How in-depth is the material?
Who Wrote It?
Do a little research about the author(s). In most books and articles, there will be a short biography of the author(s) included somewhere in the text (usually in the preface or introduction)—use this to identify the educational and experiential expertise of the author(s). Pay attention to the background of the author(s), as well as what company he or she is publishing under. For example, if an author has neither an advanced degree nor extensive experience in his or her field, is he or she likely to be an authoritative source? As another example, if you are looking for an authoritative source on the Catholic view of baptism, it would be beneficial to look at sources published by Catholic publishers (e.g., Paulist Press).
How Does the Author Support His or Her Ideas?
Check the author’s bibliography and see how many sources he or she used. A reliable academic source will have a fairly substantial list of sources, and many will also include a list of “further reading” (good sources for more information on the topic!). Check to make sure the author is using reliable and reputable sources.
As you read through the content of the source, does the author support his or her ideas with the sources listed in the bibliography, or are there a number of unsubstantiated claims? Does the author respectfully engage with multiple perspectives on the topic?
On a more basic level, does the author’s argumentation make sense? Even if you may not agree with what he or she is saying, it is good to note whether or not the author is following a logical train of thought. Similarly, does the author demonstrate an adequate grasp of basic facts? For example, if the author is operating under the assumption that the Bible was written in AD 1900, do you really trust what he or she has to say on more advanced topics?
When Was It Written?
The currency of a source varies in importance depending on one’s field of study. In theology, scholarship retains its value over time. For example, although F. F. Bruce is no longer living, his writings are unquestionably an important contribution to theology. However, for a theological source, you do want to think about the research that has occurred since it was written. For example, if researching first century Judaism, a source written in the 1940s would not include more recent scholarship on important archeological finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Additionally, if you are looking for a source on theology in contemporary culture, you want to be sure that the source addresses current culture. An older source will not be as culturally relevant as newer scholarship.
While currency is not necessarily a concern for theological sources, it is for counseling sources. The fields of counseling and psychology are growing and evolving quickly—new research is always being published. For these fields, it is wise to look for current research (within the last 5–10 years), as older research may be outdated. Look for the newest editions of textbooks and reference books as well.
How In-Depth is the Material?
Look for sources that spend a significant amount of time discussing your topic. Sources that briefly mention your topic are not as helpful as those that have an entire section or chapter (or even book!) dedicated to what you are researching.
What Does “Peer Reviewed” Mean?
This is a term you may see applied to journal articles, or even as a filter option on an online database. But what does it really mean? Is it important? If a source has been peer-reviewed, it has been critiqued and approved by a board of the author’s colleagues in his or her field. This board evaluates the article and makes recommendations before it is published. If you find a peer-reviewed source in an online database, it means that the article has been approved for publication by the board of reviewers, and is therefore deemed a quality academic contribution to the field. These are some of the best sources to use. Not only is the information in these articles accurate, but it is also accepted by the community of scholars in that field as good and reliable research.
If you find a source that is not peer-reviewed, that does not mean you should not use it. Instead, critique the quality of the scholarship using the questions above.
How Can I Determine the Bias and Background of an Author?
Authors of reliable sources come from many different religious and cultural backgrounds. We want to be aware of these factors as we read and analyze an author’s work. As easy as it is to categorize authors into various “camps” of bias and background, by doing this we neglect to see the myriad similarities between such groups and the possible differences within a single group. Here are four tips on how to determine an author’s perspective:
- Examine key parts of the book, such as the preface, introduction, conclusion, bibliography, and index. Look at the terminology the author uses – if a key term is missing from the index, that may point towards the author’s theological bias.
- Check scholarly journals (found in Covenant’s library on in an online database) for reviews of the book or article in question. If you are looking at a more recent source, and a review is unavailable, check for reviews of the author’s previous works.
- Look to see who published the book or article. Some publishers only produce works that have a particular perspective, while others are broader.
- As always, you can always ask a librarian to help you find more information about the source.
Once you have determined the bias and background of an author, it is helpful to contrast it with other perspectives on the topic. In producing a solid argument on a topic, you want to consider all sides of the argument, showing where authors agree and disagree, and where your conclusions fit into that discussion. The best academic papers demonstrate an ability of communicating within the existing discussion, not just using sources that support what you already believe.
Are Online Sources Trustworthy?
There is not an easy, generalized answer to this question. There are some online sources that are reliable and some that definitely are not. The following categories break down most online sources you will find:
Books and journal articles found through an online database (see the library homepage for databases to which Covenant subscribes) are appropriate sources to use. The newer the book or article, the more culturally relevant the scholarship, but that is not to say that older sources should not be used. Many of the books you find in one of these databases are also available in hard-copy in our library or through interlibrary loan. You can also use tools such as Google Scholar to find books and articles that are reliable, just be aware that you may have to pay a fee to access the text if it is not something that in the public domain, or if a copy is not available through Covenant.
The Gray Area
What if a source does not come from an online database? Are web pages reliable? This can be an incredibly difficult question to answer, because it depends on a variety of factors. Just like with print sources, some research must be done on the background of the author and topic. Here are some helpful questions to ask:
- What is the top-level domain of the web page? The top-level domain of the website (e.g., .com, .org, .net, etc.) used to be a good indicator of both the reliability of the site and what kind of site it was. However, in today’s world, anyone can register a website under just about any top-level domain, and so it has become largely meaningless.Official governmental websites (ending in .gov) are the only exception to this rule, and generally provide accurate information. For example, these can be great sources for statistical information on the American population. However, still be on the lookout for political bias and spin on these websites.The top-level domain .edu, strictly used for accredited education institutions, can usually be trusted, though these websites should still be used with caution. Often, universities will host personal student pages (e.g., a student blog) and student organization sites on their domain, and so you do not want to rely on the domain name alone to determine the trustworthiness of these sites.
- Who published the page? Just as with print sources, the author is a key part of determining the reliability of the source. Is the author or publisher of the website affiliated with any specific organizations? Is the author an expert in his or her field? (Can you see his or her educational and experiential background on the website?) Also check to see if there is a way of contacting the author or publishers. Usually, websites published by organizations will provide an email and mailing address as a means of contacting them. If you can answer these questions with “yes,” that is a good sign.
- How recently was the page updated? Depending on the topic, updated information can be of the utmost importance. If you are looking at statistics on mental illness, for example, you want to make sure the data is up-to-date and not from 5 years ago. On the other hand, if you are looking at website that is providing historical information, the date may not be as important, though you want to make sure that the author is actively updating his or her website.
- How valid is the information the page presents? Anyone can create a web page about any topic, so it is important to check the accuracy of the information. Are simple facts accurately represented? Does the author’s point of view make sense? Also check for the author’s bias.
There are some online sources (e.g., seemingly reputable websites) that are hard to pinpoint. If you are unsure whether an online source falls in to the reliable or unreliable category, it would be a good idea to check it out with your professor, TA, a librarian, or make an appointment at The Scribe. All of these people can help you evaluate the reliability of your sources.
Websites such a Wikipedia should never be used as a source in an academic paper. These websites can be edited by just about anyone, and therefore the information they provide (while useful and usually mostly accurate) is questionable.
There is a redeeming aspect to unreliable online sources. Check the citations they use. Often, websites such as Wikipedia will cite their sources at the bottom (usually other websites), and these may be more reliable sources. For example, if a book or journal article is cited, it would be more than acceptable to use that as a source in an academic paper. This is provided that the information you are citing comes from that book or journal article, and not from the website page.
What Should I Do about Websites with Ads?
Websites with ads should not necessarily be avoided, but need to be handled with care.
The presence of ads on a website can actually tell you a lot about what kind of site it is. Pay attention to details like what kind of ads are present. If the ads are geared towards readers in a particular field or occupation, you can determine the target audience of the website. Knowing the target audience is a helpful step in determining the appropriateness of the source for your own research. Also, refer back to the section above for tips on determining the reliability of a website. For example, an actual journal website is very reliable, even though ads may be present.
If you can, try to figure out who has paid for the article or website. You can do this by looking at copyright information and the acknowledgements section (if there is one) of the article/website. If a drug company, for example, has paid for the research behind an article, there may be ads for that company’s products on the article’s website.
Also note what the main focus of the website is. Is the article content the focus of the website, or is the site trying to direct readers to something else? As always, avoid websites with pop-up ads, as many of these are scams and can lead to unintentionally downloading viruses, spyware, adware, malware, etc. to your computer.