evaluating sources

When finding sources, you should evaluate their usefulness and appropriateness for your research project. You can begin by analyzing the type, relevance, currency, accuracy, authority, and objectivity of the source.

Types: reference, primary and secondary sources

Sources can be classified as reference, primary, or secondary.

  • Reference sources like dictionaries and encylopedias are useful for getting a general background on a topic, but should not be cited as support.
  • Primary sources are the objects of your analysis, that is, the phenomena or data or texts you will explain.
  • Secondary sources help you find ways of analyzing primary sources, that is, theories and methods.

Primary and secondary sources generally take different forms in the humanities, social and natural sciences:



Primary Source

Original, first-hand account of an event or time period

Usually written or made during or close to the event or time period

Original, creative writing or works of art

Factual, not interpretive

Report of scientific discoveries

Results of experiments / clinical trials

Social and political science research results

Factual, not interpretive

Secondary Source

Analyzes and interprets primary sources

Second-hand account of an historical event

Interprets creative work

Analyzes and interprets research results

Analyzes and interprets scientific discoveries

Source: adapted from Thomas (n.d.)

For the research paper, you should generally aim to find an appropriate mix of primary and secondary sources to support your claims. A review of secondary sources will help you understand general approaches, directions and debates in the literature, whereas primary sources about a given case will help you apply those theoretical lenses to a particular problem.

Obviously, you don’t want to waste time reading sources that aren’t going to be useful for your research paper. Evaluate the source by asking:

  • Does the source relate to your research question / keywords?
  • Who is the intended audience? (Too) general or (too) specialist or expert?
  • Is it useful as a reference / primary / secondary source?
  • Is the whole source useful or just part of it?
  • Are there links / references to other more useful information?

Academic research needs to have current relevance, or take account of current approaches to historical phenomena. Evaluate the source by asking:

  • Is the information timely and up-to-date?
  • Is the source recently published / regularly updated?
  • How recent are the citations or datasets?
  • Do any hyperlinks still work?
  • If the source is older, is it still significant / sound enough to be included?


Academic research must produce usable new knowledge, and so must be as accurate as possible. Evaluate the source by asking:

  • Are any subjective claims plausible?
  • Are there many generalizations or simplifications?
  • Is any empirical evidence correct / complete / verifiable / reliable?
  • Does the author cite a good mix of primary / secondary sources?
  • Is it professionally published / peer-reviewed?


Reputable sources will be produced by expert authors and will be subject to peer review and academic/legal checks. Evaluate the source by asking:

  • Is the authoring individual or organization clearly identified?
  • What are the author’s experience / credentials / reputation / expertise?
  • Has the author written other texts on the subject?
  • Are the source / author cited by other scholars?
  • Is the journal / publisher / web domain reputable?


Subjective accounts should be analyzed as primary sources, and secondary analysis should be objective and open to all truthful possibilities. Evaluate the source by asking:

  • What affiliations does the author have?
  • Is the source based mainly on fact or opinion?
  • Does it have a commercial / intellectual / ideological aim?
  • Is the language emotional or objective?
  • Are the claims, evidence, methodology or results affected by any bias?


  • You may use some sources in a language other than English, provided that:
    • at least some of your secondary sources are in English
    • you translate the parts you use into English and include the original in a footnote
    • the source itself is not available in an English version
  • You do not have to use primary sources for a 102 research paper – a critical review of the secondary literature may be enough


Bosch, Eileen. 2016. “LibGuides: Library Basics: Evaluating Print Sources.” Accessed February 16. http://libguides.bgsu.edu/c.php?g=227153&p=1505673

“Digital Literacy Resource – A Guide To Doing Research Online – Source Evaluation Checklist.” 2016. Accessed February 16. https://digitalliteracy.cornell.edu/tutorial/dpl3221.html

“Evaluating Print Sources.” 2016. The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. Accessed February 16. http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/evaluating-print-sources/

Library, T. R. U. 2016. “Research Guides: Evaluating Print and Web Resources: Home.” Accessed February 16. http://libguides.tru.ca/evaluatesources

“Purdue OWL: Evaluating Sources of Information.” 2016. Accessed February 16. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/553/03/

Thomas, Susan. “Primary vs. Secondary Sources,” CUNY BMCC library website. Accessed 2 February 2016. http://lib1.bmcc.cuny.edu/help/sources/

“What’s Wrong with Wikipedia? § Harvard Guide to Using Sources.” 2016. Accessed February 15. http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k70847&pageid=icb.page346376.