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English Composition - Oakland Campus: Evaluating Sources

A guide for students in ENGCMP 0200: Seminar in Composition on the Oakland Campus.

Evaluating Web Resources

The Internet provides access to a wide variety of information. Almost anyone can create a webpage, and that creates a huge problem for serious researchers. How do you judge the quality of the sources you find on the Internet?

Most print resources such as books, magazines, and newspapers are edited or reviewed before publication. Most information on the Internet is NOT reviewed. You must evaluate the information you find online. If you cannot determine the quality of a particular source, consult other resources such as books, magazines and encyclopedias, or consult a professor or librarian to find out more about the topic.

When viewing a webpage, follow the five traditional points in evaluating print resources:

1. Accuracy

  • How reliable is the information? Check to see who is publishing the page.
  • Pay attention to the domain of the website. Is this information coming from an educational institution (.edu), a company (.com), the government (.gov.), or an organization (.org)?
  • Is the information verified or reviewed by anyone?
  • Is the information free from error?
  • Is it purposely misleading?

2. Authority

  • Who is the author?
  • What are his/her qualifications to write on this subject?
  • If the author is an institution, what is its credibility in this area?
  • Many web pages are posted without an author.

3. Objectivity

  • What is the purpose of the information?
  • Is it meant to inform or entertain? Is it biased or objective?

4. Currency

  • When was the page created?
  • Has it been revised lately?
  • Is the information up to date?
  • The date of creation and/or revision is usually on the bottom of the page.

5. Coverage

  • Does the site contain original information or does it link to other sites?
  • Can you trust the linked content?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Does the page seem to meet the needs of the intended audience?
 
 

A Helpful Guide

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).

Primary Sources by Subject

Each field of study has its own world of sources, conventions, and vocabularies.  The list that follows is not all inclusive, but will help you to identify primary sources in your own discipline.  In general, personal correspondence and diaries or journals are considered to be primary sources by all disciplines. If you are unsure that a source is considered primary by your discipline, ask your professor or a reference librarian for assistance.

  • Archaeology/Anthropology: an artifact or object that provides evidence of a society, such as clothing, farming tools, household items, and buildings.

  • Arts and Literature: the original artistic or literary work that forms the basis for a criticism or review, such as feature films, musical compositions, sound recordings, paintings, novels, plays, and poems.

  • Biology: research or lab notes, genetic evidence, plant specimens, technical reports, and other reports of original research or discoveries (e.g., conference papers and proceedings, dissertations, scholarly articles).

  • Business: market research or surveys, anything that documents a corporation's activities, such as annual reports, meeting minutes, legal documents, marketing materials, and financial records.

  • Communication: websites, blogs, broadcast recordings and transcripts, advertisements and commercials, public opinion polls, and magazines (e.g., Rolling Stone).

  • Engineering: design notes, patents, conference proceedings, technical reports, and field surveys.

  • Geography: field notes, census data, maps, satellite images, and aerial photographs.

  • History: government documents (e.g., treaty, birth certificate), photographs, store account books, artifacts (such as those listed for archaelogy/anthropology), maps, legal and financial documents, and census records.

  • Law: court decisions, trial trancripts, and law codes.