Analyzing Information Sources


How do you analyze a book or an article (or other “physical information” sources) before you have the physical item in hand? First, examine the bibliographic citation—you’ll gain important information about its usefulness. You’ll find the bibliographic citation in a catalog or index. It will be a written description of a book, journal article, essay, or some other published material and will generally include three main components: author, title, and publication information. As you evaluate an information source, use this checklist as a guide. If you find a weakness in one or two areas it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the source, but it should raise a red flag. Use your judgment to determine whether or not to include the source in your research. 

The Citation

Consider the authority of the author. Is there an author listed? Does the author have credentials, a degree, or experience in this area of research? Is the author considered an expert in the field? Does the author have an institutional or organizational affiliation? Is it reputable? Are you familiar with the author from class, other readings, or citations in other sources?

Consider the date of publication. When was the source published? For web pages, is there a “date of last revision”? Is the source out of date for your topic? Has the source been revised? Is a new edition available? Is there a new preface?

Consider the publisher. Is the publisher a university press? This usually indicates a scholarly source. Is the publisher reputable or well known? Although this doesn’t guarantee quality, it can be an indicator. Is the publisher known for publishing scholarly journals, books, and materials?

Consider the journal or magazine (if applicable). Is the journal scholarly or for a popular audience? Scholarly journals are usually published or sponsored by a professional society or association, are often refereed or peer-reviewed, and are written by and for faculty, researchers or scholars. “Popular” usually refers to articles written for a general audience. How will you be using this information (e.g., as background information, as a scholarly source, etc.)? For youyr purposes does it matter if it is scholarly or not?

The Content

After an appraisal of the citation information, consider the body of the source.

Quick content check. Before you read the entire book, chapter, or article, evaluate its content quickly. Scan the table of contents. Does the coverage meet your needs? Read the preface. Does it address your topic? Absence of an index may indicate a lack of authority. Absence of a bibliography or cited sources list indicates a lack of authority. If sources are listed, test the listed sources using the four citation evaluation criteria above.

If you determine the authority of the source and the content is suitable for your research needs you can move on and consider the content in more depth using the following criteria as a guide.

Consider the intended audience. What type of audience is the author addressing? To whom is the publication aimed? Does the source meet your
particular needs as to background or scholarly information? Is it too simplistic or too complicated or technical?

Use your reasoning skills to appraise the content. Is the content provided presented as fact or mere opinion? Is the author appealing to emotions, or does the author use emotional language? Is the author making a well-reasoned argument backed up by facts? Does the author have a hidden agenda or propaganda interest?

Be wary of statements of fact! Skilled authors can convince you that the world is flat. Therefore, consider whether the facts can be verified, and are pertinent to the context in which they are used. Does the author cite sources? Can you verify the facts yourself? Does the information appear valid and well-researched? Is it backed up by evidence?

Do you detect any bias on the part of the author? Consider the content as well as the author’s affiliation, the publisher, the website, and other sources on the same topic.

Consider the coverage. Does the work update other sources, add new information, or substantiate other material you have already acquired? How in-depth is the work? Does the work extensively or marginally cover your topic?

Is the material primary (raw material, first-hand accounts such as diaries, government documents, contemporary newspaper articles, scientific research
reports) or secondary (scholarly journal articles, books, encyclopedia articles)?

Consider style, functionality and legibility. Is the work logically organized? Are the main points clearly presented? Is the work easy to read? Does it flow logically, or is it choppy? With print and electronic materials, are typos or other errors present in the text? If it's an electronic resource, is the work easy to navigate and clearly labeled? Are buttons or other user interface elements functional? Is there an index or search function to search the work for specific content?

Final Considerations

Never rely on just one source to answer all your research needs. A source may appear to be accurate and authoritative, but you can never be sure unless you have at least one source (preferably more) with which to back it up. Always strive to seek out additional sources from various mediums (books, journal articles, and websites) to build a balanced and well-rounded bibliography. Consider how each source that you choose fits into your research paper. Remember that anyone can publish anything on the Internet! Surfers beware!

See the original article, Critically Analyzing Information Sources, by the Olin and Uris Libraries, Cornell University