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Evaluate Sources

With the explosion of information available at your fingertips, it is more important than ever to evaluate your sources.

You will likely be asked to find scholarly or peer reviewed sources. 

Scholarly sources, also called academic sources, consist of sources that distribute academic research and scholarship. Most scholarly sources are published in academic journal or book form. The authors of scholarly sources are typically scholars and academics, including faculty and students, with known institutional affiliations. The intended audience for these materials is typically researchers, scholars, academics (faculty and students), and other highly informed readers.

You may also hear scholarly sources reviewed to as peer reviewed sources. Peer review is a common, though not universal, process in scholarly publishing whereby a work is reviewed by other experts in the field before publication. There are a variety of styles of peer review, with varying levels of anonymity for the author and reviewers and transparency to the reader. Peer review is intended to evaluate the quality of the scholarship, and ensure that only high quality scholarship is published. If mistakes are made, or research findings are later found to be inaccurate, reputable journals have systems of issuing corrections and retractions to their readers.

When evaluating these sources, look for the following pieces of information:

  • Currency - How recently was the research conducted? How recently was the article published? Some topics demand more current information than others, so don't automatically discount older sources.
  • Relevancy - Is the article relevant to your topic? Look to the abstract for a brief snapshot of the article's contents.
  • Authority - Who is the author? Have they published other articles on the topic? Are they an expert in the field?
  • Data - Take a look at the data or results presented in the article. Does the data support the article's assertions? Was the study well-designed? Does it agree or disagree with other articles you've read?

Backwards Treeing

When you've found a useful resource, look at its References/Citations, and then track down those articles using our databases. Some databases (PsycINFO, PsycARTICLES, ScienceDirect) will even include a list of Cited References:


Forward Treeing

Some databases (PsycINFO, PsycARTICLES, ScienceDirect) provide you with Cited By information. Essentially, Cited By tells you what other articles cited the initial article you were reading. Below are two images of this, the first in ScienceDirect, and the second in PsycARTICLES.

Additionally, when you find a useful article, note the author(s), it may be a good idea to search for other articles by that author as it is likely they have done other similar or related research.

Searching Tips

Subject Searching:

To find subject headings for your topic:

  • Look to see if the database has an online thesaurus to browse for subjects that match your topic (check the Help screens).

Another way to find subject headings:

  • Start with a keyword search, using words/phrases that describe your topic.
  • Browse the results; choose 2 or 3 that are relevant.
  • Look at the Subject or Descriptor field and note the terms used (write them down).
  • Redo your search using those terms.
  • Your results will be more precise than your initial keyword search.

Subject samples in the search results:

Or after clicking on the article title in the search results:

What are subject headings and keywords?

Subject headings describe the content of each item in a database. Use these headings to find relevant items on the same topic.  Searching by subject headings (a.k.a. descriptors) is the most precise way to search article databases.

It is not easy to guess which subject headings are used in a given database. For example, the phone book's Yellow Pages use subject headings. If you look for "Movie Theatres" you will find nothing, as they are listed under the subject heading "Theatres - Movies."

Keyword searching is how you typically search web search engines.  Think of important words or phrases and type them in to get results.

Here are some key points about each type of search:


  • natural language words describing your topic - good to start with
  • pre-defined "controlled vocabulary" words used to describe the content of each item (book, journal article) in a database
  • more flexible to search by - can combine together in many ways
  • less flexible to search by - need to know the exact controlled vocabulary term
  • database looks for keywords anywhere in the record - not necessarily connected together
  • database looks for subjects only in the subject heading or descriptor field, where the most relevant words appear
  • may yield too many or too few results
  • if too many results - also uses subheadings to focus on one aspect of the broader subject
  • may yield many irrelevant results
  • results usually very relevant to the topic


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