Quality of Sources
There is no universally accepted scale for what kinds of sources are valuable, and what kinds are not. Generally speaking,
- more current sources are more valuable than older ones
- less biased sources are more valuable than more biased ones
- sources that reach more readers are more valuable than sources that reach fewer readers
- sources that publish selectively are more valuable than sources that let anyone publish
But, for the purposes of this workshop, I’m working on a rough rubric that will help you determine how valuable a particular source is to your STW term paper.
Full-length academic book. (5 out of 5 stars)
About 300 pages, written by a scholar who may have worked 10 or 20 years studying this specific subject; published by an academic press, for a small audience of other professors, their graduate students and others who hold advanced degrees in the subject. Such books typically look very dry to outsiders.
Example (from Amazon) Clark, Margaret. Understanding Religion and Spirituality in Clinical Practice. The Society of Analytical Psychology Monograph Series. London: Karnak Books Ltd, 2012. Print.
Full-length academic article (5 out of 5 stars)
About 10-25 pages; published by a scholar or advanced graduate student, in a peer-reviewed journal. Not necessarily less credible than a book, but less prestigious. A book takes about three years to go from the author’s brain to the library shelf. A journal article may only take a year.
Review of a book (3-4 out of 5 stars)
The author has read a recent book, and is writing a critical assessment of that book, often pointing out gaps and flaws, but also noting where the book breaks new ground, corrects previous problems, and advances the study of the issue. Reviews are published in the same journals where full-length articles are published, but reviews are typically much shorter (3-5 pages), and because the subject is a review of a specific book, the review will be narrow in scope. Reviews are extremely useful when they are used in conjunction with the book being reviewed. Thus, if Jim Smith writes a scholarly book, and Jane Jones reviews it, you can use quotes from Jones to help you interpret parts of Smith; but if your paper uses just the review written by Jane Jones, and you don’t consult the book she’s reviewing, then the book review is a mediocre source. If you use the book review as part of a paper that also consults the book directly, your paper will be much stronger.
Article in a professional magazine (3 to 4 out of stars)
While an academic article is written by scholars whose goal is to advance knowledge, a professional magazine is geared towards professionals working in a particular field. Examples of magazines that are not scholarly publications, but that contain information that may seem attractive for college research papers, include American Nurse Today, or American Police Beat Magazine. While an academic journal features a small number of long articles with few if any ads, a magazine targeted at working professionals will have large colorful advertisements for uniforms, equipment, college programs, employment agencies, political rallies, etc. If the article is short and readable, if the design of the page is colorful and vibrant, and if the author is not identified as a scholar working at a particular university, chances are you have found a professional magazine. Such an article might be valuable if your paper presented it as a specific example of how members of a particular profession see an issue, but the authors will intend to make their group look as good as possible, rather than explore the issue with the most even hand. If you treat an article in a professional magazine as an undisputed fact, you risk weakening your argument. (Consider what Homeschool Parent Magazine and the journal of the National Teachers’ Association would have to say about whether public schools are allowed to bar homeschooled kids from using public school facilities (such as libraries, field trips, school sports, etc. You would expect those two organizations to disagree, so simply citing one or the other side does not demonstrate your ability to research in depth.)
What are some sources you already know are questionable?
Random web pages. Corporate web pages. Activist web pages. These are not sources of reliable, peer-reviewed information.