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INTD 105: Critical thinking, skepticism, and conspiracy theories (Professor Hahn): Evaluating sources

Scholarly vs. Not Scholarly

Scholarly sources usually refer to sources created by scholars in a scholarly manner. Typically, this means that the article or book has gone through some variation of Peer Review and/or editing, in order to catch mistakes. It also assumes that the author has relevant expertise in the field they are writing in.

Figuring out if something is scholarly can be tricky, but there are a couple of rules that you can keep in mind:

  • Scholarly articles are longer than 2 pages
    • It's really difficult to write an appropriately rigorous paper in a couple of pages. Look for the longer articles.
  • Scholarly articles come from journals
    • Look for "the journal of" or names of associations. Also ask your professor or a librarian.
    • Generally, catchy or fun titles indicate something that is not scholarly, though there are a few exceptions.
  • Scholarly articles often have multiple authors
    • This is not always the case, but if you are looking at multiple authors it is very often a sign of higher levels of work.
  • Scholarly books tend to come from University Presses or well known educational publishing houses.

There's no one easy way to figure this out, but keeping these general guidelines in mind can help. Many databases in the library also have an option to select only Scholarly or Peer-Reviewed items, so that is an excellent short cut.

Primary Vs. Secondary

Primary Sources are produced close to the event or person in question, from someone who has personally participated in or witnessed the thing they are writing about.

Secondary Sources are produced farther from the event or person in question, working from other people's information or writing after a large amount of time has passed.

These definitions can be tricky: often whether something is a Primary or Secondary source can depend on your topic, and sources can switch back and forth. It's often worth consulting with your professor or a librarian to determine whether something qualifies as one or the other.

Evaluating the Evaluators

There are a number of fact-checking services out there on the internet. They are useful sources for fact checking, but when using any of them you should also keep in mind that they may have their own hidden biases. How do you fact-check the fact checkers? How to evaluate the evaluators? Ask the following questions:

  • Is their methodology available?
    • Good sites will have sections defining their criteria and going into detail as to what each rating means.
  • Do they explain the reasons for their decisions?
    • Good sites will go into detail as to how they apply their criteria.
  • Do they explain why they exist?
    • Look for an about page that will give you a clue to why they started their site and what their potential biases are.
  • Are they easy to contact?
    • Good sites will include clearly defined ways to contact them, either to submit claims to be checked or to update them on facts they may have missed.

Not every good site will do all of these completely, and biased sites may have some of these elements, so these are just factors to include in your paper when you are arguing about a claim that a site makes.