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Understanding Scholarly Information: An Introduction

Why Do I Care About the Information I Use?

Everyday, we use information from some place to answer our questions.  Where is my friend's new house?  Where is the cheapest gas? Is it healthy for my pet to eat bubblegum all day?  What is the relationship between the rising costs in the housing market and job growth in my town? 

Depending on the type of answer you are looking for, or the type of research you are doing; the places you go to find information can be very different from one another.   All research involves asking a question.  So, before you ask your question, you should think about why you are asking it, and where you want your answer to come from. 

If you are looking for the cheapest gas, then using an app on your phone, or looking it up through Google will most likely get you the answer quickly and accurately.   

However, if you are assigned a research project for your class that asks you to explore the rates of housing costs and their relationship to employment opportunities, then the research process just got a little bit more complicated.   Here's where this tutorial comes in.  This guide will walk you through what scholarly information is, where to look for it, how to identify it, and best practices for using it in your academic research projects.

What is a Scholarly Source?

video courtesy of: Carnegie Vincent Library at Lincoln Memorial University.

How Do I Know Where to Start?

Deciding on a starting place to find scholarly information for your research project can be tough.  There are a lot of options out there, in terms of types of sources (newspapers, books, magazine, journals, T.V.) and access points (library database and websites).  Here are a couple things to consider before diving into the giant ocean of information that is out there.

  • How much do I know about this topic?  If I'm starting from a completely unaware place, I may want to use encyclopedias and other general sources to find out more about the specificity of my topic. 
  • How much time do I have?  The obvious answer, is very little to none, probably.   So, make sure you use your research searching time wisely.  Choose databases from a Library rather than trolling the whole Internet for sources.  The Library databases are a great time saver, since they collect information specifically for the use in academic research. Remember not all the information is scholarly, but it is a much smaller pool of information to search through.  Less "fluff" and more peer-reviewed sources, makes it a time saver every time.
  • What type of source information is being required for this project?  If you are doing a large quantitative research project, then you will need to find those scholarly, peer-reviewed publications.  If you are not required to use that level of information for your research, still think about what a credible source is, and use that information to make your searches more effective. 

What Does "Credible" Mean?

We've all heard the word before; credible. But what does credible mean to us, as an academic researcher?  To complicate matters, you'll also hear other terminology that goes along with credible.  Words like, scholarly, peer-reviewed, academic, and authoritative can be confusing when used without context; but good news, all these words describe the same type of information.   So it's important to remember that all the above could be used interchangeably by your teacher, or someone who you are doing research for/with.    

So, now we know people use different words to describe information that is appropriate for use in academic research, and that is great; but now the question is, how do we know what it looks like when we try to find it? Here's a checklist that you can use when determining the credibility of a document/piece of information.

Five Criteria for Evaluating Information

Evaluation of documents

How to interpret the basics

1. Accuracy of Documents

  • Who wrote the material and can you contact him or her?
  • What is the purpose of the document and why was it produced?
  • Is this person qualified to write this document?

Accuracy

  • Make sure author provides e-mail or a contact address/phone number.
  • Know the distinction between author and publisher.

2. Authority of Documents

  • Who published the document and is it separate from the author?
  • Check the publisher of the document, what institution publishes this document?
  • Does the publisher list his or her qualifications?

Authority

  • What credentials are listed for the author(s)?
  • Where is the document published?

3. Objectivity of Documents

  • What goals/objectives does this material meet?
  • How detailed is the information?
  • What opinions (if any) are expressed by the author?

Objectivity

  • Determine if the document is a mask for advertising; if so information might be biased.
  • View any document as you would an infomercial on television. Ask yourself why was this written and for whom?

4. Currency of Documents

  • When was it produced?
  • When was it updated?
  • How up-to-date is the information?

Currency

  • Are the links current or updated regularly?
  • Is the information in the document outdated?

5. Coverage of Documents

  • Are there references? If so, are they evaluated and do they complement the document's theme?
  • Is it all images or a balance of text and images?
  • Is the information presented cited correctly?

Coverage

  • If a document requires special software to view the information, how much are you missing if you don’t have the software?
  • Is it free, or is there a fee, to obtain the information?

Putting it All Together

  • Accuracy. If your document lists the author and institution that published it and provides a way of contacting him/her, and . . .
  • Authority. If your document lists the author's credentials
  • Objectivity. If your document provides accurate information with limited advertising and it is objective in presenting the information, and . . .
  • Currency. If your document is current and updated regularly, and...
  • Coverage. If you can view the information properly not limited to fees, technology, or software requirement, then . . .

You may have a higher quality document that could be of value to your research!

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