ABC's of Resource Evaluation
How do I know if the book, article, or website I found is a reputable source? Use your ABC'S!
1) Who is the author?
What are his/her credentials and qualifications? An oncologist who has worked 30 years in the field and who has done significant research on cancer treatment is a much more reputable source than an anonymous blogger. If you can't locate the author of your resource, you may not want to use it.
2) Does the resource have any bias?
In other words, how is the information being presented? Is the author writing in a balanced, objective tone and presenting facts and valid points on both sides of the issue? Or alternatively, is the language emotionally charged, only one side of the issue is being presented, and the argument is mostly filled with opinion and misleading information?
You also want to determine the purpose of the resource. Is it meant to inform or educate, as academic sources tend to be, or is it meant to pursuade or sell something? Popular magazines are interesting reads at times, but their main purpose is the entertain and therefore, not as useful for an academic paper as more scholarly resources are.
3) What is the resource's content and how current is it?
Does the resource provide a comprehensive coverage of the topic? Does it have a works cited or reference page that you can consult to validate their claims and to gather further information on the subject?
Also, how current is the information? Generally, you want to stick with resources that were published within the last tenyears (unless you are looking for a historical perspective). Reputable websites should list the last time the website was updated somewhere at the bottom of the page or under an "About" page. If you cannot find the last updated date, you may not want to use it.
Reputable Research Studies
Most research studies are considered "scholarly" and therefore, reputable sources. Still, you should examine their study parameters to ensure reliability and validity.
First, look at their introduction or literature review. How comprehensive is it? Researchers who have done their homework and reviewed previous studies before conducting their own study are generally more reliable. The literature review of a comphrensive research article is a good way to educate yourself on the background of a particular topic.
Second, look at their methods section. How many participants did they use? What demographics did they study? What tests did they conduct on the participants? Generally, the larger the sample size, the more reliable the results. For example, if I am polling the Immaculata undergraduate students on a certain issue, getting 500 undergraduates to participate is a much more reliable sample of the entire Immaculata undergraduate population than 15 participants.
The results section comes next. This will tell you what statistical analysis the researchers used to determine whether or not their intervention was effective and if their hypotheses were correct. If you are not trained in statistics or research methods, this section can be quite overwhelming. However, there is a way around this!
You can also learn the results of the study in the discussionsection. This is where the researcher explains his/her findings in layman's terms. It is a great place to learn whether or not their study was effective. A reliable researcher will not overgeneralize their findings. For example, just because my study showed that Immaculata undergraduate students were positively affected by a certain intervention does not mean that other college students will be affected in the same way, or that different age groups like the elderly or elementary school children will respond in kind.
Finally, look to the limitations section (sometimes incorporated into the discussion section) for an objective overall assessment of the study. Here, the researchers may tell you what, if given the chance, they would have done differently. They may also make suggestions for future researchers in terms of how they could improve or replicate their study.
What is a Primary Research Article?
A primary research article presents original research. Just like other primary sources, a primary research article has not been evaluated or analyzed or reviewed by anyoneother than the author(s). When determining if an article is primary research, look for subheadings like subjects, methods, results, and a conclusion. Also look for charts, graphs, or other presentations of data.
For example, imagine a researcher wants to study the effects of a certain drug on a certain population of people. He does his research, and when he is done, he writes it up as an article to be published in a journal. In the article he talks about how many peope he tested the drug on; how he conducted the study (e.g. was there a placebo group? How was the drug administered?); what the results of the study were (e.g. was the drug effective? Did any subjects experience side effects?); and his own conclusion and commentary about his experiment (i.e. he is the only one to comment on his study).
It may be helpful to think of a primary research article in contrast to a literature review. A literature review is just what it sounds like--a culmination and review of several original research articles. For example, imagine that an author wants to write an article about the drug above. He cannot write a thorough review by analyzing only one primary research article, such as the one above. The author pulls together that primary research article plus other primary research articles like it and writes a review in which he analyzes the body of evidence as a whole.