As Spencer Tracey said about Katharine Hepburn in the movie Adam’s Rib, “There’s not much meat on her, but what there is choice.” When it comes to movie stars and research source materials, quality counts.
You want only the choice cuts for your research paper. If the material isn’t of the highest quality, it won’t support your thesis, convince your readers of your point, or stand up under your reader’s scrutiny. In fact, it will have just the opposite effect. That’s why it’s important to evaluate the quality of every source before you decide to include it in your research paper.
The old maxim is true: you can’t judge a book by its cover. You have to go deeper. Here’s how to do it. (Each of the following guidelines holds true for online, print, and media sources.)
”¢ Check the writer’s qualifications. Is the writer or speaker really qualified to write on the subject? Is this someone you trust to give a valid opinion? You can use the following simple checklist to evaluate the writer or speaker:
Is the person an expert or an eyewitness to the events described in the source?
What is the person’s reputation?
You can check in biographical sources such as Contemporary Biography, Who’s Who, and Who Was Who to validate a person’s reputation. Web sites often contain biographical information about the various contributors, too.
Does the person have the credentials to write on this subject?
Don’t be fooled by degrees; a Ph.D. in chemistry, for example, doesn’t give a scholar the credentials to write about biology, physics, or any other subject outside his or her field.
Is the author well known and well respected in the field? How many other online articles, journals, or books has the author published on this subject?
Does the author have a bias or a personal agenda to advance?
Is the author selling a product or service, for instance?
”¢Â Â Now, evaluate the source itself. Here are some guidelines to use:
Was the source well reviewed?
Read some critical reviews in quality journals and newspapers to find out how the experts evaluated the publication. If the book was not reviewed, it may not be on the front line of scholarship.
Who spoke in favor of the book?
Most books have endorsements (called “blurbs”) penned by well-known people in the field. These usually appear on the back cover of the dust jacket. See whether the endorsements were written by respected writers, scholars, and public figures. If not, the book may not be a solid source.
Is the publisher reputable? Is it known for publishing reliable information?
Reputable sources include scholarly Web sites, scholarly journals, university presses, and major publishers.
Is the source up-to-date? What is the publication date?
Is the source a first edition, revision, or reprint?
While the information in first editions is usually up-to-date, the book may be so new that the information it contains has not yet had time to be authenticated and replicated.
Is the source complete? Have certain facts been cut for their controversial nature or for space limitations?
Does the author present sufficient evidence to support the thesis?
Does the author document his or her claims with the titles, Web sites, and authors of source materials? Are these sources credible?
Can the claims in the source be backed up in other sources?
Be especially suspicious of sources that claim to have the “secret” or “inside track.” If you can’t find the same information in other reputable sources, the material doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Is the source fair-or does it contain distorted information? The following section shows you how to evaluate sources for bias.
Every source is biased, because every source has a point of view. Bias is not necessarily bad, as long as you recognize it as such and take it into account as you evaluate and use the source. For example, an article on hunting published in Field and Stream is likely to have a very different slant from an article on the same subject published in Vegetarian Times.
Problems arise when the bias isn’t recognized or acknowledged. Some problem areas to watch include bogus claims, loaded terms, and misrepresentation.