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Readings In Contemporary Non-Fiction - Oakland Campus: Evaluating Information

A guide for students in ENGWRT 1390 class with professor Maggie Jones.

Three Types of Sources

There are three types of sources:

1) Primary Sources

  • Original materials that provide direct evidence or first-hand testimony concerning a topic or event.
  • Primary sources can be contemporary sources created at the time when the event occurred (e.g., letters and newspaper articles) or later (such as, memoirs and oral history interviews).
  • Primary sources may be published or unpublished.  Unpublished sources are unique materials (e.g., family papers) often referred to as archives and manuscripts.
  • What constitutes a primary source varies by discipline. How the researcher uses the source generally determines whether it is a primary source or not.

2) Secondary Sources

  • Works that interpret, analyze, and discuss the evidence provided by primary sources (e.g., scholarly books and articles).
  • Secondary sources are generally a second-hand account or observation at least one step removed from the event.
  • Secondary sources, however, can be considered to be primary sources depending on the context of their use. For example, Ken Burns' documentary of the Civil War is a secondary source for Civil War researchers, but a primary source for those studying documentary filmmaking.

3) Tertiary Sources

  • Books or articles that synthesize or distill primary and secondary sources, often in a convenient, easy-to-read form (e.g., dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes, and textbooks).

What is Scholarly Information?

Instructors often ask students to find “scholarly”, “academic”, or “peer reviewed” sources of information for their research.  These terms all refer to the same type of information – sources based on in-depth research, and are considered higher in quality and more reliable for your research. These sources can range from chapters within books or entire books, or journal articles, but all have common characteristics that can help you recognize that type of information.

Scholarly Information

  • Written for professors, students or researchers.
  • Have a plain appearance and titles may include words like "Journal," "Transactions," or "Quarterly”.
  • Articles are reviewed by a board of experts or "peer reviewed."
  • Follow a standard format: abstract, literature review, methodology, results, conclusion, possibly footnotes, endnotes and/or bibliography.
  • May include tables, graphs or illustrations to support research.
  • Very little advertising.

General Purpose (Popular)

  • May have a bright cover with many glossy pictures.
  • Designed to attract a broad segment of the population.
  • No specific format.
  • Articles sometimes unsigned.
  • General editors of the magazine review articles.
  • May include tables, graphs or illustrations.
  • Lots of advertising.

Trade/Professional publications

  • May have a bright cover.
  • Provide information of use to a particular industry.
  • No specific format.
  • Articles sometimes unsigned.
  • General editors of the magazine review articles.
  • Advertising is used to appeal to those in the field.

What Makes a Website Credible?

When looking for sources on the Web, it's important to verify that the information presented is credible. 

Below are 5 points and questions to ask when evaluating a website to ensure it is credible:

  1. Accuracy: How accurate is the information presented?
  2. Authority: Who is the author?
  3. Objectivity: For whom is the information written?
  4. Currency: Has the webpage's information been updated recently?
  5. Coverage: Is the information covered appropriate for the intended audience?

Additional questions to ask for each question can be found at the Millstein Library's Evaluating Web Resources site: