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Researching at the Library: Evaluate

Research tips, resources, basics, and links to course-specific research guides.

Why Evaluate?

Doing searches for a research paper is a very different kind of searching compared to, say, checking which movies are playing or what color shirt did Justin Bieber wear to his birthday party.

Research papers concentrate on verifiable facts, and claims and assertions have to be backed up with data. Generally accepted and well-known information aside, you should be careful with facts and assertions. Attitudes and biases vary not only between individuals but between cultures and times, and invariably bleed into texts.

Before deciding to use any source - book, article, DVD documentary, comic book, poem - stop and think about what kinds of biases your potential source has.

When using websites for research, extra care needs to be taken. Because anyone can publish anything on the web, there is a huge range of quality in information resources on the Internet. Web resources need to be critically considered before adopting them as a source for a research paper. Wikipedia, for example, is not considered a scholarly resource. There is no author listed for the entries, it often treats subjects superficially, and the review process is not as comprehensive as a peer review. In college, Wikipedia would not be considered a good source. However, it can serve as a good starting point for your research, especially if you know only little about your topic. Not doing any other reseach besides Wikipedia searching will fail you.

If you find a reference to a report or finding which sounds inappropriate or odd, it may be necessary to read the original text for yourself to check the findings. In fact, the further you go in the academic world, the more you are expected to.

Critical Reading

Critical reading involves active engagement and interaction with texts, and it is essential to your academic success.

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Popular or Scholarly Articles?

Most information, not just websites, falls into either scholarly or popular categories. There is a difference between popular, scholarly, and trade writing.

popular magazines aimed at entertaining a general audience, with ads, attention-grabbing headlines and photos, but usually without references (works cited)
scholarly journals aimed at students, scholars and researchers; focus on research in a particular subject, often with plain covers, few photos, technical language, graphs/charts, and references
trade publications aimed at professionals in a specific industry, with news and information on current trends and products

Check out these YouTube videos by Eastern Kentucky University Libraries for more!

Check Controversial Statements

If you find a reference to a report or finding which sounds inappropriate or odd, it may be necessary to read the original text for yourself to check the findings. In fact, the further you go in the academic world, the more you are expected to.

Especially when writing papers and doing reseach, it is not enough to just think something might be true.

The first step is to make yourself aware of and strip yourself of the so-called confirmation bias. Finding an answer you already believe is the biggest problem to confirming or debunking a claim. It is very hard, but it will get easier with experience. Think critically: evaluate what you are reading, resist the tendency to draw a conclusion before you have researched a topic, and be open to information supporting either side of a statement. Think about your thinking: what are the strenghts and weaknesses of the way you think? Ask yourself: why do I think this? Is there proof one way or the other? 

When doing reading on a controversial topic, remember that you cannot always trust writers or experts, since sometimes their credentials are inflated or they are simply wrong. Recently there have been several reports of falsified quotes and data in both mainstream media and the scientific world. However, if most scientists fall on one side of an argument, it is usually right. Science may and does change its mind according to improved research and methodology - just think of the geocentric versus heliocentric view of the solar system, for example.

When reading news and popular magazine articles, try to separate the article text from the actual scientific studies that the article refers to. It is very difficult to write science stories in a digestible, easily understood way without losing the science and the facts. If you are skeptical, do not dismiss the story or the study - dig deeper and draw your own conclusions.

To get to the meat of the issue, you need to look in scholarly journals and published scientific studies. If a specific study is mentioned in a news article or popular magazine, include the journal name and publication date in a Google Scholar search. Also include keywords like research, evidence, or study. Even better, use a library database. Once you find scholarly articles, read the full text, or at the very least the abstract. If you cannot find a specific study or article, ask a librarian or an expert in the topic for help.

Once you have read on the topic, do another round of critical thinking and draw your own conclusions. Ask a lot of questions. Do the basic arguments make sense? Are the arguments simply attacks against the other side, or is there actual evidence backing up claims? How does the opposition answer those claims? Pinpoint problems, evaluate the evidence for and against, consider other interpretations, solve problems, and, finally, find resolutions.

Based on How to Determine If A Controversial Statement Is Scientifically True by Phil Plait & David McRaney.

Credible Sources

If you're having problems with an Internet source and wasting a lot of time to figure it out, it is probably not a very good source. Find a more efficient way to locate what you're looking for.

Take the Credible Sources Count! tutorial by Vaughan Memorial Library to find out more.

WWW(WH): Evaluate Web Sources

Evaluation should be done with all kinds of texts. It is especially important with Internet sources, since anyone who has access to the Internet can create (mis)information online. ALWAYS evaluate websites: Who? What? When? Why? How?

  • Who provided the information? What are their qualifications or affiliations? Look at the About us section or the publishing logo. Is an author name given? Are they an expert in the area? Are they just saying “this information comes from a trusted source” without explicit reference? Does the URL end in .edu, .gov, or .org? Sites with .edu or .gov are typically the most trustworthy. Is there a contact address, phone number, or e-mail address in case you have a question?
  • What kind of material is presented? General statements that are hard to back up? (For example, “Women are bad drivers.”) Specific facts referring to research or a source? (“According to Professor Firestopper’s 1999 study, in the fiscal year of 1968, two thirds of fire hydrants in northern Nevada were diligently maintained.”) Is it intended for a particular audience? Look for different points of view for controversial issues.
  • When was the material created or last updated? Is the date clearly marked and easily findable? If there are links to other websites, do they work?
  • Why is the information there – to provide facts, or a point of view? Is there advertising? If there is advertisement, is there any conflict of interest between the ads and the content? If there are no ads, is someone trying to sell a product covertly - does the page have a shopping cart?
  • How (from what perspective) is the information presented? Is it easy to navigate? Are there obvious errors or typos? Information can be biased based on the ideas and beliefs of an individual or organization. Who is presenting the information? If there are facts, can you verify them by using other sources?

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