Evaluating Sources to Answer a Research Question

You will want your research paper to be respected and credible. Therefore, after you identify sources relevant to your research, you need to determine whether they can help answer your research question.

There are four questions to ask when evaluating sources:

  1. How well does the source answer the research question?
  2. Is the information provided by an expert?
  3. Is the source valid?
  4. Is there a variety of sources?

How Well Does the Source Answer the Research Question?

To determine whether printed or online published material provides appropriate information for you, review its table of contents, indexes, photographs, captions and diagrams, and read the first sentence of every paragraph, searching for words, names, concepts or images related to your research.  

Is the Information Provided by an Expert?

To support your research's legitimacy, you will want your sources to be experts who have considerable experience and training in an area and whose informed opinion can substantiate (or differ with) your point of view. (Just because a person is associated with a situation or idea does not make him or her an expert; for example, if you are researching medical waste, any person who works in a hospital is not necessarily an expert.)

Is the Source Valid?

  1. Is the information presented objectively and without bias? (Do you accept a claim from the National Association of Tobacco Growers that nicotine is not an addictive drug?)
  2. Do the authors let you know their sources of information? Be wary when "an informed source" is quoted without telling the reader who that source is.
  3. Do the authors explain their research methods as well as results? 
  4. Is the research current, if the topic demands it? If you're writing a paper on nuclear waste disposal, a report written in 1952 is not valid.
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Is There a Variety of Sources?

Identify the range of expert perspectives, conclusions, opinions and approaches to your topic so you don't promote or rely too heavily on one source or point of view.

For example, if you are comparing the leadership styles of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, don't cite five books by Bruce Catton, or use six sources on Lee and only two on Grant.

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