Understanding how to evaluate information seems easy at first, but it can be difficult when you add in the pressure of choosing good resources for your college classes. We have some tips for figuring out what to look for in a good resource. The tips here can be used for all sorts of resources: web, books, articles, and others. These tips are easy to adapt for other mediums.
A lot can be done by taking the time to consider what your "perfect" research project would be like (shoot for something more specific than "Good enough to get an A"), and working back from there. Take a look at your assignment and consider what standards your professor has set for you. These are non-negotiable if you want to do well on your assignment, and probably for a good reason. Then consider what expectations you would like to set for yourself. After combining these two, what will your research need to look like for this assignment to accomplish both of those goals? Do a little thinking about the kinds of resources you'll need before beginning your research. Some assignments may be strongly supported by peer-reviewed articles, while others may need the currency of popular periodicals to boost the point you want to make, and the very thorough coverage of a book may be well-suited to setting up some of your points. By identifying this beforehand you’ll save time later.
The library has several guides that may be useful to look at as you develop this plan for your research, such as: "Books or Articles: Which should you use?" and "Reference Sources: What They Are and How to Use Them".
Now let's go over some other things you'll want to consider as you begin the research process and start looking for resources.
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Consider the CONTEXT of the research you’re doing. Depending on your purpose for researching, your audience, etc. you may find yourself using different resources for one project than another. Remember that if you want to use websites or other resources with questionable credibility you'd better have a good reason for choosing them over a more reliable resource. In fact, it is a very good idea to ask for your professor's opinion here if you get stuck. Chances are, if you use a resource with questionable credibility, you are going to need to back it up with more reliable resources. Your teachers are expecting you to make the smartest choices for your projects and papers.
Think about the QUANTITY of research you need. Although 5 sources may be enough for a short paper, larger research projects will require you to draw upon more resources to make sure your point is covered well enough. Too many resources are overkill and your paper may seem too scattered and flighty, too few may make your paper seem less well-researched. Also, think about how many of each format of resources (books or articles or websites or reference books or audio, etc.) you have. Most of the time you’re going to want a healthy mix for your research project. Check your assignment. A lot of your professors will tell you the minimum number of resources they expect from you.
Perhaps most important of all is the QUALITY of the resources you’re using. Although we most often associate low quality resources with the web, it is possible to find them in print form as well. Again, remember to check your assignment. In addition to number, your professors will most likely tell you the the KIND of resources they want you to find (Spoiler alert: they're probably going to ask for scholarly, peer-reviewed resources). No matter what the assignment, the more critical you are of the sources you use, the better your research will be in the end.
There are so many ways to access information that it can be hard to choose which one to use. The two main forms you’ll probably use are print and web. People often think “print is more reliable” or “web is easier” but there’s more to it than that.
Many people consider print resources more reliable, but this isn’t always true. Self-publishing and vanity presses make it necessary for us to be just as critical of print resources as web ones. Look for print resources that are scholarly, or peer-reviewed, meaning they’re approved by experts in the field. Print resources are great because there are so many of them that are reliable. Many print resources are excellent for overviews of subjects, print reference resources are often more detailed than their web counterparts, and it is often easier and quicker to identify reliable print resources.
Just because something is available online doesn’t mean it’s not as good as something in print, but it does mean it should be checked very carefully before using it in an academic paper. Web resources are popular because they are easy to access from anywhere. Unfortunately, no one is policing the internet for truth, so we must do that work ourselves. A good print resource will give you the information up front, but web resources require digging and finding reliable ones takes much longer. Searching in the library's Encore search engine eliminates this uncertainty and time drain.
Another thing to remember is that many print resources are now also available in digital formats in order to cater to the preferences of users. Some of these digital formats may be available via the web. So, though the way you’re viewing the resource has changed, the significance attached to its original medium of publication may not have changed. Be aware.
Don't forget that there are other formats that resources come in: DVDs, CDs, archival materials, pamphlets, and maps, just to name a few. You may find good resources in all sorts of places.
Once you've got these initial aspects nailed down, you can move on to your research and your evaluation criteria.