Finding and evaluating sources

Researchers these days have available many sources of information in many different audio and video formats from television and radio broadcasts to youtube videos to personal interviews, but let’s start with more traditional text-based sources: books, periodicals, and web pages.

Here is some general info about resources available for elearners from BCC’s library. Also check out the new section on Research: where do I begin?.

To start with the most traditional, books are still a readily available and very useful source of information, and one that students sometimes forget about in the rush these days to google everything. Remember that you do not need to read an entire book in order to find good information; you can use table of contents or index to locate the exact info you are looking for. Because the book has been edited and published by a reputable publisher and, perhaps, purchased by a library, book-information carries a tremendous credibility that google-results do not. Here’s a short video I did about finding books:

Periodicals (magazines, journals, newspapers) are another traditional source of information, though with computers we have a new way to access these articles. (You may still, of course, use hard-copy, paper-in-your-hands magazines or newspapers to find articles, but the more convenient way to access many more titles is electronic.) This computer access to articles is through a system referred to as research databases, which are vast electronic collections available to libraries (and their patrons) through subscription. In other words, BCC has purchased access to these databases (access is free for BCC students and for community members, when they are on campus). Most of these databases are accessible from your home computer; if you have not activated your BCC ID card as a library card, use 22777000516341 when requested to enter your library ID (otherwise, use the bar code from back of your ID). This section of the library’s information literacy tutorial describes how to search databases. And here’s another one of my videos on searching databases…

As a general rule, many of your college professors will consider databases one of your best sources of information, combining the credibility of book sources with the convenience of an electronic search.

Now we get to the third source of information, which is in many ways both the most accessible (for most of us) and the most problematic: the Internet (i.e., web sites). The crucial issue with internet sources is credibility: how can you tell that the info you pull up is reliable when anyone with a computer and modem can set up a web page and upload information. For now, let’s start with how to find sources on the web. For many people google is a first (and sometimes only!) search engine, and certainly it does pull up many sources, which is both a good and a bad thing. There are other options that you might want to try that will either limit the number of sites found and/or more produce sites that are more reliably credible. Google scholar, for example, is a good option. (It may not give full-text of articles, but you may find the author and title of an article that you can then go to databases for ful-text.) Metasearch engines such as metacrawler or dogpile combine results from several search engines, typically resulting in many fewer hits. Sites such as ipl2 (a merger of the Internet Public Library and Librarians’ Internet Index) and Infomine allow users to perform subject searches of sites that have been approved by librarians and scholars. This page from UC Berkeley links to info about some of these options plus others.


How to evaluate research sources: The four criteria usually listed by which researchers should evaluate sources are the following:

  • relevance (does the source answer your particular research question?)
  • authority (does the source come from a credible source, an individual whose expertise can be established or a reputable organization?)
  • bias (is the source objective, or if there is a clear bias, how does that affect the quality of info given?)
  • currency (is the source as up-to-date as required by your topic? For questions about computer systems, two years may be much too old; for an analysis of effect of George Washington’s presidency, two hundred years may be just fine.)

Though you need to think about these issues for printed sources, they’re much more of a problem with Internet sources. Here are a few videos (recommended by BCC librarians) to introduce what’s involved:

Please look over this great tutorial on Internet research (you don’t need to carefully digest every last morsel of it, but glance through it at least–it’s entertaining!) Also, I’d recommend that you take a look at this very enlightening page (from Phil Bradley) I found the other day, which lists a number of scam or spoof pages (again, you don’t need to read through all of them; just pick one or two that catch your attention)

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