Evaluating Online Sources

As any student who's ever started a paper the night before it's due will tell you, good research takes time.  If you are writing an academic paper, you should look for peer-reviewed academic sources, not corporate press releases or articles from online magazines or newspapers.  

Start With Good Academic Sources

A reference librarian is specially trained to help patrons find the best sources. An Internet search engine, on the other hand, will show you plenty of sources that will waste your time.

An Internet Search Engine Will Show You...

  • newspaper or magazine articles (written by professional writers who are not experts in the subject matter, such as brain surgery or international politics),
  • commercial or activist web pages (written by people who are trying to sell you a thing or an idea, and have no interest in giving you a balaced and accurate overview of a complex issue),
  • instructional web pages (such as this one) or student projects (neither of which have been approved by the peer review process)
  • spoof web pages that are posted by pranksters; or creative works that imitate scholarly websites .

Don't Trust Everything You Read Online!

See the creative hoax "History of a Victorian Era Robot," which looks more professional than my own page on "Rossum's Universal Robots." My page states (correctly) that the word "robot" didn't even exist until decades after the Victorian era ended.

See also this article on prankster Joey Skaggs, an artist who makes a career out of tricking gullible journalists.

A Free Search Engine Won't Emphasize...

  • meticulously-researched articles,
  • written by full-time researchers (who spend several months on each article, while a journalist may have to write several different stories each day),
  • screened by an academic journal's panel of experts, and
  • published as a service to the academic community.
  • Having said that, scholar.google.com is a specialty page that gives prominence to resources that look like academic articles. (The site is not perfect -- some projects that students wrote for my undergraduate classes get high prominence in scholar.google.com, but that doesn't mean they are credible academic sources.)

Finding Academic Articles

The best place to start is by talking to the human being working the reference desk at your local library. If it's currently two AM and your paper is due tomorrow, you may still be able to find some sources online, but you have to start in a library database, not in Google or Yahoo!.


Beginning Your Research

Find a recent academic article that seems at least somewhat related to your topic. For example, if you want to write about pioneer women of Wisconsin, you might find a review of a recent scholarly book on the pioneer tradition of America

  • Plunder the "Works Cited" page. Even if the article itself is of little use to you, it may point you towards books or other articles that will be more valuable. (If there is no list of works cited, then you aren't reading an academic source.)
  • Scan books on related topics. You will probably not find a whole book that examines the specific set of questions I am asking here. You may have to look at chapter or sections of different books, and piece together your own argument.
  • Walk to that section of the library that has books on your topic, and look on the shelf for similar books. books. Open each book up and scan the table of contents at first; if you're looking for something in particular, scan the index. If a book looks promising, set it aside; otherwise, put it back and keep looking

Using Your Materials

Avoid summary.  If you don't have a clear thesis, you will be tempted to fill up lines, either by making random observations or by quoting long passages from your source texts.

Are you falling into a pattern of spending a paragraph on each outside source, and then starting a new paragraph to introduce a new source?  If so, you are probably summarizing other arguments, instead of developing your own. Refer only to those components of the outside author's text that help you to construct your own argument. 

Documenting Evidence

Back up your claims by quoting reputable sources. If you write, "Recent research shows that..." or "Many authors believe that...", you are making a claim. You will have to back it up with authoritative evidence. This means that the body of your paper must include references to the specific page numbers where you got your outside information. (If your document doesn't have page numbers, you can give a section title or you can count the number of paragraphs.)

Avoid using words like "always" or "never," since all it takes is a single example to the contrary to disprove your claim. Likewise, be careful with words of causation and proof.

For example, consider the claim that "television causes violence in kids."

  • The evidence might be that kids who commit crimes typically watch more television than kids who don't.
  • But maybe the reason kids watch more television is that they've dropped out of school, and are unsupervised at home.
  • An unsupervised kid who doesn't watch much television might still commit more crimes than a supervised kid who doesn't watch much television.
  • If you really do have evidence like that described above, then claiming that television causes crime confuses association with causation.

To Cite... or not to Cite?

You do not need to cite common facts or observations such as "a circle has 360 degrees" or "8-tracks and vinyl records are out of date," but you would need to cite specific claims such as "circles have religious and philosophical significance in many cultures" or "the sales of 8-track tapes never approached those of vinyl records."


Anything that takes time is valuable.  And things that are valuable generally cost money; that's why you won't usually find the best articles through free search engines.  Does this mean you will have to pay to find good sources?  Not directly... your university or public library probably subscribes to dozens or hundreds of databases, all of which are free to their patrons.  And a growing number of journals publish their full contents online, in order to reach a wider audience. But a site like www.findarticles.com will emphasize the sites that want to sell their content to you.

Nearly any library database will include some way for you to limit your searches to "peer-reviewed", "scholarly" or "juried" sources.  But some periodicals include editorials, letters to the editor, and opinion columns; further, some periodicals that identify themselves as peer-reviewed are not necessarily scholarly.  

For instance, a search for "Scholarly (Peer Reviewed" Journals" in the "Academic Search Elite" regularly turns up articles from a periodical titled, The Humanist: A Magazine of Critical Inquiry and Social Concern.  The word "magazine" in the title should be enough to make a researcher suspicious.  Further, the authors of these articles write like magazine authors -- they don't fully cite their sources (giving the page number where they got each fact; instead the author will call up an expert on the phone and print what he or she says), and magazine articles don't include a scholarly reference list.  

The authors of aritcles in The Humanst do not appear to be scholars, but rather political activists.  There is of course nothing wrong with referring to a political opinion in an academic paper, but on the website for The Humanist you will find the following statements: "The Humanist is a non-profit magazine of opinion. The Humanist has a distinctive slant and therefore does not publish all viewpoints" ("Submission Guidelines for The Humanist").  Student researchers who do not distinguish between opinion and fact in their sources will probably have a hard time separating them in their own writing, so I do not recommend The Humanist as a source for freshman research papers. 

Note: It's perfectly permissible for an academic paper to cite non-scholarly sources.  For instance, if you wanted to argue that Britney Spears is a commercial product designed to appeal to the anxieties of preteen girls, you would probably be expected to quote song lyrics, analyze a brief transcript from a chat room, and refer to a news report that described a recent Spears concert.  But such a paper wouldn't be a researched academic essay, unless it was also grounded in recent research on such subjects as mass marketing, child psychology, popular culture, and gender studies. 

This checklist will help you determine whether a source you find online is scholarly.  This checklist won't cover every possible situation, but it will offer some clear criteria that you can use to judge your sources for yourself.

Did you find the source by instructing a library database to display only results from "peer reviewed" publications?


You may very well find scholarly sources through an ordinary web search engine (such as Google or Yahoo!), but your chances are much better if you use one of the databases provided by a library.  
  • A peer-reviewed journal may publish a letter to the editor, an opinion column, or a short story.
  • Even if you tick the right box on the database, you still have to look critically at what the database serves up. (See the next item.)
Does the article conclude with a  bibliography?


If your source documents its claims, it is probably a scholarly document.
  • If your online source ends with a statement like, "This document was compiled from the following resources," then it's not a good academic source.  You should go directly to the sources that the compiler used.
  • A list of "recommended links" or suggested titles for "further reading" is not enough.  (Such a list is a dead give-away that you're not looking at a scholarly source.) 

Note: Even if a source does document its claims, it may not be a credible, peer-reviewed article. If you found your source through a web search engine, there's a good chance that you found a student paper

Telltale signs of a student paper:

  • Posted on a ".edu" website, but author's title (assistant professor, Ph.D. candidate, etc.) is omitted.
  • URL includes a course number or title.
  • No outbound or navigation links on the page (you may have to hack the URL looking for clues).
  • Spelling mistakes, unsupported claims, or wordy introductions.
  • Garish colors; page titles such as "My Paper" or "New Page 1"
Does the source specify the author, publisher, and date?

A peer-reviewed academic source will always include this information. If you can't find all three, then you aren't looking at a good academic source.  
  • Author: Academic researchers always want credit for their work. They won't give away academic information without putting their name on it.  The author's name, position, and university affiliation will be clearly listed.  (Sometimes groups of scholars will publish policy or opinion statements under the name of an organization, but if your source is an academic article, every author will be listed. If the author is identified as a "freelance writer" or a "staff reporter", then the source is not a scholarly essay.)
  • Publisher: If your source is posted on the author's own website, or if an article about a particular organization is hosted on that organization's website, it's almost certainly not a peer-reviewed academic article.  (If it's actually a reprint of information originally published in a more authoritative source, the webmaster will almost certainly tell you.)
  • Date: The date is extremely important to researchers who wish to evaluate the content of a particular source.  For example, an article about airline security written before Sept. 11, 2001 will be evaluated very differently than an article written shortly afterwards. If you can't find a date, you can't tell how current the information is.
Does the author support his or her argument by citing academic articles?


The author of an academic article will almost always position his or her document against recent related academic publications.  After the initial thesis paragraph, look for a short section that refers to a large number of scholarly sources. 
While the accumulation of cookie crumbs in typewriter keyboards has long been recognized as a factor affecting worker productivity (Smith; Jones; Able and Baker), few have gone as far as Charles's statement that workers who eat lunch at their desks are 10% more likely to cause "egregious damage" to their workstations (134). 

If your source claims that "recent studies have shown" or "some people say" something, but the article does not actually specify any such studies or quote people who have actually published such claims, it is not a reliable academic source. 

Does the source have a long, dry title?  

"Incidental Memory and Navigation in Panoramic Virtual Reality for Electronic Commerce"
This is perhaps a matter of opinion, but academic articles typically have long, dry, and very specific titles.
"A World Without Landmines"
"Republicans with Heart Give Democrats Hope"
Magazines and newspaper articles typically have short, snappy titles. If you are writing a current events paper, or you need recent statistics, it may be defensible to cite a news article published within the last few months. (Ask your instructor's opinion.)

Academic Research on Current Events

Finding academic articles devoted to emerging issues or cutting-edge technology may be difficult.  While you may find dozens of newspaper reports and a good handful of magazine articles, you may not be able to find a peer-reviewed academic article devoted to your topic.

Find academic articles on related or historical topics, and fill in the gaps by citing the non-scholarly sources.

You might find it hard to locate academic sources that examine current events, or the latest developments in computer technology or Internet culture.  If so, you can quote from older studies of related topics, and connect the dots. Point out where the conclusions of those earlier researchers did or did not predict the issues that emerge when you examine the new technology.  

The the Internet will probably serve up dozens or hundreds of news reports, magazine articles, and corporate public relations materials surrounding a current event or an emerging technology.  But everything that happens in the world is the result of a complex network of causes and effects.  We can learn quite a bit about the current war in Afghanistan by examining scholarly analyses of the years that the Soviet Union spent fighting (and ultimately losing) under very similar conditions.  While you might never find a whole article devoted to the specific issue you wish to cover, you can still find peer-reviewed academic sources that will give you a solid historical, cultural, scientific, or global background.  Where else in the world, and when else in history, has a similar thing happened?  How is the situation you wish to examine different from those other instances?


Category Tags