Finding and Evaluating Sources (Critical Analysis)

Finding and Evaluating Sources (Critical Analysis)

Finding Sources

Identify the Research Question

Before you can start research, you must first identify the research question. Your instructor will either assign a specific research question or a research topic.

If you are assigned a question or can select from a list of questions, it is easy to identify your question. You can start with focused research looking for sources that would help to answer the question. Don’t select a source by the title. It is critical that you read through possible sources to see if they will help with the question. For example, if your question asks whether pesticides in foods are harmful, don’t just select any source that has to do with pesticides. There are pesticide issues with the environment, for example, that have nothing to do with this question.

If you are assigned a topic, you will start with exploratory research. Exploratory research is where you explore various aspects of the topic and after learning something about it, you focus on a particular question of your choice. This is called narrowing the topic. Then, your research becomes focused research on that particular question.

Either way, before doing research for a research paper, you must identify a research question. The research question is critical since all of the content of the research essay follows from the question.

Primary and Secondary Sources

A primary source is where the author is presenting his or her own information either based on professional knowledge or research. This is the best type of source to use when conducting research.

A secondary source is where the author is reporting information presented from other people. This means that there could be a misunderstanding or misinterpretation or the information, and it is not considered as reliable as primary sources.

Traditional Sources, Electronic Library Resources, and Internet Sources

Traditional sources are tangible sources as existed before the Internet: books, newspapers, magazines, film, interviews,  works of art, and so on. Then with the Internet, a new source of information has become available in the website. In addition, many traditional sources have been collected and made available online. Electronic Library Resources (available to PHSC students through a link in Canvas) provides many originally hard-print sources electronically.

Evaluating Sources

General Considerations

It is important to first make sure you understand your assignment as to how many sources are required and any restrictions on where they may be from.  There might be a requirement to use at least one type of specific source such as a book, article from a journal, magazine, or newspaper, or page from a website. 

Don't simply select a source by the title. You must review to be sure the content will help answer the question. For example, if your research question or topic is about how the moon affects earth's tides, the source must have information on that specific area. Some articles on the moon might talk about space exploration or its geography or its climate, none of which will help with a paper about tides.

Once you have screened for appropriateness, the content should be reviewed for reading level. If the paper is too technical, it may not be understandable enough to work with. You should be able to understand it and make notes on the main points.

Then, a closer look is needed.  

Critical Analysis

The term critical doesn't always mean finding the problems or being judgmental.  A movie critic, for example, reviews a movie for strengths and weaknesses. We have to be critics ourselves when we review our own writing and when we review information for our papers. We shouldn't just believe everything we see, hear, or read. We have to be particularly careful when that information comes from a purportedly legitimate source. We generally think that documentaries have true and accurate information, but sometimes they don't present all viewpoints or are biased towards one.  Here are a number of considerations:

  1. credibility – is the source believable?; is the source created by a person or organization that knows about the subject matter.  Determining credibility of online sources can be a challenge since it is not always clear who created or published what we are looking at. If a person is named as author, is that person a professional in the field?
  2. facts – does the source include the truth; is information based on evidence
  3. opinion –  is the content a personal evaluation of the author and not necessarily based on specific, accurate, or credible evidence?
  4. evidence – is there support such as examples, statistics, descriptions, comparisons, and illustrations; evidence is also called proof, support, or supporting evidence.  
  5. bias and slanted language – is there a  preference for one side over the other; is there slanted language which is language shows a bias or preference for one position over another.
  6. tone – what is the tone?  Words can be used to create a feeling such as a happy tone or sarcastic tone or angry tone. Tone can be used to persuade.
  7. stereotype – the generalization that a person or situation in a certain category has certain attributes such as because a person is old, he or she is a bad drive. Stereotyping is faulty logic.
  8. preconceived ideas – ideas that we already have; in doing research, it is very important to look for sources that present all of the perspectives on a question, not just those that prove what we think we know.
  9. logic – evidence should be evaluated for logic; does the evidence have any logical fallacies.  
  10. valid argument – is the argument valid? A valid argument is based on logical analysis of information, but if the information is not accurate, the conclusion is not necessarily true.
  11. sound argument – an argument based on a syllogism that has accurate major and minor premises. An argument can be sound, but it is not necessarily true since the information on which it is based may not be accurate.
  12. Toulmin Logic – a form of logic that uses claim, grounds, and warrant for analyzing the logic of an argument.
  13. logical fallacies (flawed logic) – faulty logic; includes sweeping generalization, argument to the person (ad hominem), non sequitur, either/or fallacy, begging the question, and bandwagon argument.  
  14. appeals – use of language to sway the reader by appealing to emotions, logic, or ethics. 

Traditional Sources

Traditional Sources

How to Search Traditional Print Sources

Print sources include books, newspapers, magazines, journals, and any other hard-copy sources such as official records.  Print sources generally include all tangible sources such as video or audio tapes.

Print sources are still valuable for research. While many print sources are available in an online version, many are not.  Copyrighted materials that are not yet in the public domain are often available only in print version.

Library catalogs are now generally available both in print and electronically.  In other words, you can search a library catalog online to see what is available on the shelves.  In many cases, you can now reserve, request transfer from a library affiliate, and even renew online.

The catalog, whether you access in print or electronically, is the first step in selecting print sources.  The contents of the library are organized by subject and by author.  Some electronic library catalogs might also include a keyword search.

Encyclopedias and dictionaries can be very useful resources, especially a specializedencyclopedia such as the Encyclopedia of Aeronautics or specialized dictionary such as a medical dictionary. They are excellent ways of getting general information on your particular subject if you are not familiar with it at all.

The table of contents or an index, if any, of a book can be helpful in determining whether there is information on your question.  Bibliographies, list of books, can be helpful in find a source.  There are periodical indexes which are lists by content of either one periodical or several periodicals.  These indexes would save the time of going through the individual table of contents of each journal.  In some disciplines, there are specialized reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary which gives not only the current definition of a word but also every definition the word ever had in printed documents along with more information.

Once you have found possible sources, they must be screened for validity and appropriateness.  If you are researching a topic such as stem cell research where there are new studies being published regularly, a book published even five years ago is probably not appropriate.  Newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals are better sources for the most recent information.

The background of the author is an appropriate way to screen for validity.  Information about treatment for diseases from a physician may be more valid that information from a person without a medical background.  Association with an organization is also a tool for evaluating validity.  Whether or not a publication is peer reviewed is critical.  Scholarly journals, for example, are usually peer reviewed which means that specialists in the field have reviewed the articles for validity and significance before publishing.

Increasingly, the entire contents of libraries are online.  This can be particularly helpful even if your ultimate goal is to use the print version since you can do an online content keyword search to see if the book contains information on your question.

As much as possible, screening for appropriate hard-copy sources should be done through information in the online catalogs to avoid wasting time in going to a library only to find the source was not appropriate.

Electronic Library Resources

Electronic Library Resources

What is Electronic Library Resources?

Electronic Library Resources is a link to a collection of academic research materials. It includes access to the PHSC Catalog along with other research tools. These include access to the A-Z Databases provided by the State of Florida electronic databases (a collection of data organized in a way to find specific information in the contents – may be created either in hard copy or electronic) and e-journals. 

For the most part, the Electronic Library Resources consist of electronic versions of newspapers, magazines, books and journals that were originally published in hard-copy version. They are delivered through subscription services.

The Electronic Library Resources also includes online encyclopedias such as Funk and Wagnall’s New World Encyclopedia and a number of online only resources.

Databases such as America’s News and Academic Search Complete are made available through subscription services such as EBSCO and Newsbank.

Some databases collect articles from various publications. America’sNews has articles from various newspapers around the country. 

Once you have selected a source it is important to understand exactly what you are looking at. In the Electronic Library Resources, there is an A-Z list of databases along with the subscription service that provides them.

When you are doing your Works Cited or other bibliography if using a different style such as APA, you will need to know the author, title of the article, name of the magazine, newspaper, or journal it was originally printed in, the publication information or URL and date.

ALL PHSC students have access to our electronic library resources. There is a direct link from within Canvas. From the Modules page, click Electronic Library Resources on the left sidebar. You then click on the blue button that says open in another page.

Working with the Electronic Library Resources can be challenging until you get used to it. The different subscription services have different search engines.  It is important to see how the Search page is organized to properly filter for your prospective sources. Become familiar with the organization of the Electronic Library Resources.

The Subject list is good place to start to search all databases that might have information on your topic. Look carefully to see what information is asked for on the page.  Use the little arrows to scroll for choices where indicated.

Be sure to check Full Text where available. Not all databases have the full text of the article.

Be sure to limit the dates of sources to get the most recent information when appropriate. Information on some topics could easily be outdated very quickly.

Keywords may be different in different databases. Be sure to using limitations and specifics where possible. For example, a search for the keyword Atlantis could result in sources on the resort and the movie in addition to the legend of the lost continent of Atlantis. A better keyword might be Plato’s Atlantis or Lost Continent of Atlantis. While some search systems anticipate a range of possibilities, others require some trial and error searching.

Use of quotation marks tells the search engine to find both words together. For example, a search of the keywords Egyptian mummies could yield source for mummies from South America and elsewhere, but “Egyptian mummies” should give results only for mummies that are Egyptian.

Remember that a Boolean search could be helpful. Boolean words are AND, OR, NOT. Note that they are capitalized. Some search engines will automatically insert the Boolean AND when there are two keywords entered, but sometimes you could try to include on your own. If you wanted information on all mummies except Egyptian mummies, you could search mummies NOT Egyptian.

Filtering is critical to find sources both in the databases and in any internet research.

Remember that Electronic Library Resources are set up so that you can search by specific database listed alphabetically, by category in the Subject list and also by database type (i.e. digital or video databases etc.)

Internet Sources

Internet Sources

How to Search the Internet

Unlike print sources which are expensive to publish, the Internet provides a means to inexpensively publish.  Anybody can pretty much publish anything.  That is why it is particularly important to screen possible sources from the World Wide Web.  There are specialized search engines such as ones for children’s sites or for radio stations or images.

Another problem with sources on the Internet is that all sources look the same in the sense they are online.  In print sources, we can readily see what type of publication is: book, newspaper, magazine.  On line, we have to look more carefully to understand what we are looking at.

The web address (URL) is a good first indicator.  Suffixes tell us something about the source: .gov is a government site, .edu is an educational institution site, and .com is a business.

Sources from businesses should be viewed for a bias.  A business website is promoting a business, not necessarily giving all the information about a controversial issue.  On the other hand, a business source can give valid technical information about a product.

It is important to see who is sponsoring the site.  Sometimes, the name of the website will seem to present information from a certain perspective, but when we see who posted the website, it is clear that is not the case.

Unacceptable Sources:

There are some websites that should not be used as sources for academic research such as blogs which are just people expressing an opinion and not presented as a knowledgeable sources.  Editorial opinion either from an editor or submitted from a reader should be evaluated for bias and credibility since there is a question about whether the person is actually knowledgeable in the field.  Wikis are created by people posting information.  Most are not necessarily created by scholars or others knowledgeable in the field.  In fact, here is a quote from the Wikipedia page “About Wikipedia:”

“Anyone with Web access can edit Wikipedia, and this openness encourages inclusion of a tremendous amount of content. About 75,000 editors—from expert scholars to casual readers—regularly edit Wikipedia …

Wikipedia does have a system in place for review of content and presentationand while they strive to edit for completeness and balance, there is the following disclosure:

“Users should be aware that not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start: they may contain false or debatable information. Indeed, many articles start their lives as displaying a single viewpoint; and, after a long process of discussion, debate, and argument, they gradually take on a neutral point of view reached through consensus.”

A standard encyclopedia is reviewed for accuracy by experts before publishing.

It’s easy to get lost in cyberspace.  We could easily be in a site and then follow a link to some other site.  We might think we are in a reputable site, but we are actually somewhere else.

Then, there is the situation where a variety of sources are posted within a site.  Each would have to be evaluated separately.

Strategies for Searching the Internet:

What you get is a result of what you ask for and how you ask for it.  Search engines use categories to come up with the selections they present after you type in your search.  Popular search engines are Google, Yahoo, and Bing.  Generally, your computer is set up with a default to a search engine depending upon your browser.  A browser is the program that gets you onto the Internet.  Browsers includes Internet Explorer, Safari, Google Chrome, and Mozilla. There are also specialized search engines that are created to help do focused research in a specific area such as health care of business administration.

The key to a good search is to use a keyword or keywords that will find what you are looking for and to filter so that you don’t get selections you don’t want.  Say you wanted to find out whether about mummies from countries other than Egypt.  If you type in mummies, for example, the search will result in mummies from all countries and eras, most of which will probably be from Egypt.  You would have to filter manually through all to find information on other types of mummies.

Boolean searches are ways to limit selections.  Boolean searches use the words ANDOR, and NOT to refine searches.  If you try searching mummies NOT Egyptian, you will have a more limited list.  Note that these Boolean searches are in all caps.  While some search engines now automatically capitalize, others don’t.

Quotation marks could also be helpful.  They tell the search engine you want results for all of the words in quotation marks and not just either of the words.  The results list could be very different for “breast cancer” than for breast cancer, depending upon the search engine.