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Evaluating Reference Sources

After gathering reference sources, carefully examine them with specific and general questions designed to determine whether they are relevant to the research question or topic under consideration. There are four primary questions to ask about a list of references, including:

  1. How well do sources answer the question?
  2. Does an expert provide the information?
  3. Is the source valid?
  4. Is there a variety of references included, and not just one point of view?

The way to decide if a source is appropriate is to read the Table of Contents and Indexes inside a book and see if the material matches your topic.

In an article, read the captions underneath the pictures and charts first, then the first sentence of each paragraph. Usually the pictures and graphs will give you the gist of the article, while the text helps to explain it. Be careful to consider the credentials of all references. Someone with experience, training, and certification in a field of study is considered an expert.

Their studied opinion will then substantiate your opinions on a topic. For example, a PhD psychologist working with children for 30 years would be more of an expert on attention deficit than, say, an auto mechanic.

Other questions to consider are the following:

  1. Is the information unbiased? For example, do you accept a claim from the Sugar Growers Association that sugar is necessary to the human diet and does not cause cavities or Type II Diabetes?
  2. Do the authors openly report their sources? Be careful of research articles that do not give full information.

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  3. Do authors state their research methods as well as results? If methods are not discussed, the research may be faulty.
  4. Is the research up-to-date?

For example, if you are writing about hybrid cars, an article from 1943 is not valid. Generally use sources that are 5 – 10 years old or newer.

Finally, it is important to use a variety of points of view and opinions concerning a topic so that there will be enough evidence from all sides for making a balanced judgment. Do not depend only on a single source, or look for material biased only toward a particular point of view. Collect several appropriate sources, and review the combined information from that collection in order to analyze it to determine your own opinion. Using the questions above, you will have chosen information that is balanced, current, detailed, and scientifically correct.


Arlov, P. (2007).Wordsmith: A Guide to College Writing. Third Edition. Prentice Hall

Arlov, P. (2004).Wordsmith: A Guide to College Writing. Second Edition. Prentice Hall

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Evaluating Reference Sources. (2017, Apr 11). Retrieved from

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