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Research Toolkit

A guide to doing research at the Middlebury Libraries, from start to finish.

Evaluating Sources

Different kinds of research require different kinds of sources. For a research paper in psychology, you'll probably need recent peer-reviewed journal articles, but for a research paper in history, you might need popular magazine articles published many decades ago. For a research paper in linguistics, you might do an analysis of the language used on websites of political advocacy groups. When most of your sources are online, it can be difficult to figure out what kind of source you're looking at and whether it's authoritative.

The line between what is considered scholarly and non-scholarly continues to blur as it becomes easier to create and share information. Sometimes you need to use a combination of different information types. This means you need to be able to carefully evaluate each source you use.

Some questions you may consider in your evaluation of identified sources include:

  • Who created or produced the information?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Why was the information created?
  • Can you verify the claims a source makes with other sources you find in your research?


This video, "Evaluating Sources for Credibility" from NC State University, discusses how to determine if a source is credible and what criteria you may use to make your evaluation. This video runs 3:14 and was last updated in June, 2015.

Scholarly or Popular

It is important to be able to distinguish between journal articles and magazine articles. Journal articles are typically referred to as scholarly, while magazine articles are typically referred to as popular. Here are some clues to look for when you're trying to figure out if your article was published in a scholarly journal or a popular magazine.

Criteria Scholarly Journal Popular Magazine
Example Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology Time magazine
Content In-depth, primary account of original findings written by the researcher(s); very specific information, with the goal of scholarly communication. Secondary discussion of someone else's research; may include personal narrative or opiniongeneral information, purpose is to entertain or inform.
Author Author's credentials are provided; usually a scholar or specialist with subject expertise. Author is frequently a journalist paid to write articles, may or may not have subject expertise.
Audience Scholars, researchers, and students. General public; the interested non-specialist.
Language Specialized terminology or jargon of the field; requires expertise in subject area. Vocabulary in general usage; easily understandable to most readers.
Graphics Graphs, charts, and tables; very few advertisements and photographs. Graphs, charts and tables; lots of glossy advertisements and photographs.
Layout and Organization Structured; includes the article abstract, goals and objectives, methodology, results (evidence), discussion, conclusion, and bibliography. Informal; may include non-standard formatting. May not present supporting evidence or a conclusion.
Accountability Articles are evaluated by peer-reviewers who are experts in the field; edited for content, format, and style. While the peer-review process is far from perfect,* it often is an indicator at least some measure of objectivity. Articles are evaluated by editorial staff, not experts in the field; edited for format and style.
References Required. Quotes and facts are verifiable. Rare. Little, if any, information about source materials is given.
Paging Page numbers are consecutive throughout the volume. Each issue begins with page 1.
Other Examples Annals of Mathematics, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, History of Education Quarterly, Almost anything with Journal in the title. Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, Ladies Home Journal, Cooking Light, Discover

Acknowledgement: This is adapted from one created by North Carolina State University Libraries. They, in turn, modified a document originally created by librarians at the University of Michigan Shapiro Undergraduate Library.

*This 2019 Washington Post opinion piece provides examples of the imperfections of the peer-review process:  Why we shouldn’t take peer review as the ‘gold standard.’


Primary or Secondary Sources?