Pre-Steps for Evaluation
Before you can evaluate resources, you need to have some context for evaluating them. For most projects, your research topic and audience provides this context.
1. What is your topic? Can you complete this statement: "I am studying ____ because I want to find out _____ in order to help my reader understand ______"? If you do not yet know how you want to fill in the blanks, you are in the pre-reading stage and would benefit from reference sources and introductions to your topic.
2. Who is your audience? What is their background with this topic?
Step 1: Initial Appraisal
You've got some catalog records or items in hand. What can you tell from them that can help you determine their value to your project?
1. Evaluate the record or item with the following in mind:
- What are the author's credentials in this area (educational background, institutional affiliation, and work experience can all be relevant indicators)?
- Has this author published other works in this area? (Perform a search in WorldCat or a topical article database like ATLA Religion Database, as well as a search engine like Google to answer this question)
- Date of Publication
- Does recency matter for your topic?
- Has the same author written later works on the same topic?
- Edition or Revision
- In cases where there are multiple editions or revised editions, do you have the most recent edition, or is there a good reason to use an older edition?
- Is the publisher reputable? Most university presses are, and many commercial publishers are reputable in defined areas.
- Is this a scholarly or popular resource? (A useful mental yardstick is to compare the Journal of Biblical Literature [scholarly] with the Christian Century [popular], in terms of writing style, footnotes and bibliographies, illustrations, length of articles, etc.)
- Check the publisher's website or search by publisher in WorldCat to get a sense of other titles it has published
- Book Reviews
- Use a topical database like ATLA Religion to search for reviews of a book. Determine the general reception and note any questions or criticisms that reviewers raised (these do not mean that the source has no value, but they are relevent to determining how well this resource fits with your project).
2. If all looks well on the counts above, skim the book or article with the following questions in mind:
- Skim the Table of Contents and index, looking for your key words. Skim the pages on which those key words occur.
- Skim prologues, introductions, conclusions, the first and last few paragraphs of chapters, and the last few pages of the work (these are all places where authors are likely to provide summaries of their argument or a step-by-step guide through the contents of the chapter or book)
- Skim section headings (this is particularly valuable for journal articles, but also worth doing for books)
- Skim the bibliography and look for other books you've already found helpful or enlightening, as well as additional resources that look promising.
- If your article has an abstract, read it.
- For websites:
- Skim sections labeled "Introduction", "Conclusion", "About", "Who We Are.". "History", etc. to place this site in context
- If there is a site map or index, skim it to get a sense of the content and architecture of the site
- If there is a search box, type your keywords and synonyms to see what results you receive
If, after all this, the resource still looks promising, begin to read. As you do, keep the following questions in mind.
Step 2: Content Analysis
As you read, determine the following:
- Is the intent of the author to inform, to persuade, to sell?
- Are alternative points of view presented?
- Is the audience of this resource similar to the audience of your intended project?
- Is the information well-researched?
- Are the claims in line with those of other sources you've read? (New arguments are welcome, but you need to evaluate them very carefully if the central claim departs significantly from what other scholars in that area have found.)
- Was this resource reviewed by editors or peer scholars before publication?
- Are there out-of-date or false statements that you recognize?
- Is the language generally impartial, highly ideological/biased, or somewhere in-between?
- Can you separate fact from opinion in the work? (Some skilled authors are very good at making opinion look like fact)
- Is this source primary or secondary for your project? (The best research papers use both primary and secondary sources)
- Does this source add new information to what you've already read, or merely repeat it?
- Does this resource cover your topic in depth, or treat it only marginally?
- Is this resource well-written or produced?
- Is it easy to follow the argument, or is approach confusing or stilted?
- (NOTE: One of the side benefits of reading many well-written sources is that all of this reading tends to impact your own writing for the better.)
Step 3: Weeding and Adding More Resources
Evaluating resources occurs throughout the life cycle of a project. At any point, you may realize that a resource is too tangential to your project to remain a good source and decide to let it go. Simultaneously, you may realize that in order to make a strong claim, you need to identify some new resources to inform particular areas of your argument and so you need to search for additional resources. Give yourself time to follow this process, and please ask a librarian if you have any questions. We love to help you locate resources that move your project forward!