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Psychology: Evaluating Your Sources

A University of Lethbridge guide to Psychology research and resources.

What is a Scholarly Source?

Perhaps the first step in evaluating any source is to determine whether or not it is scholarly.  Many professors require students to use exclusively scholarly sources in their research, so it is important to know what scholarly sources are and how to identify them.

Scholarly sources are authored by scholars and professionals who are experts in their fields.  They generally provide original research, or reviews and analyses of others' research.  They are often subject to a peer review process prior to publication, in which other experts review the work to ensure that it meets the standards of quality academic research. These reviewers (also called referees) may accept the work as it is, make recommendations for its improvement, or reject its publication outright.  This process helps to ensure that scholarly sources are accurate and credible.

Scholarly sources are also referred to as academic, peer reviewed, or refereed sources. 

Identifying Scholarly Sources

Determining whether or not a source should be considered scholarly is not always straightforward.  There are, however, many clues to look for that can lead you to make a confident decision about each source you're considering.  The questions below should help you in recognizing and uncovering these clues.  Some only apply to particular kinds of sources.

  • Is the source peer reviewed?  Some sources (especially scholarly journals) explicitly state that their contents have undergone a peer review process.  This information can usually be found on the journal's website.  Peer reviewed sources are scholarly sources.
  • Does the author have credentials and institutional affiliations relevant to the topic of the source? Scholarly sources are written by experts in their field.  It is helpful, then, to know the author's credentials and affiliations.  This information may not be provided in the source, and so may require an Internet search.  Be wary of any source that is not written by a scholar or professional in its field of study.
  • Who is the publisher?  Certain publishers are more likely to print scholarly works than others.  Academic institutions (e.g. Oxford University Press), professional organizations (e.g. American Psychological Association), and government offices or departments (e.g. Department of Foreign AffairsTrade and Development) typically publish trustworthy materials.  Publishing companies may publish scholarly and non-scholarly works, though many specialize in one or the other.  Routledge, for example, is a prolific publisher of academic books, journals, and online resources.  Conversely, Penguin Random House prints popular materials for a general public audience.
  • Who is the intended audience?  This may not be immediately clear, but a closer examination of the source should help you to determine whether the author is writing to the general public or to others with a specialized knowledge of the subject area.  Scholarly sources are written by experts, for experts, so be especially cautious with any source that doesn't seem to assume a reader familiar with the discipline.
  • Does the source include citations?  Scholarly sources are founded on extensive academic research and always cite their sources.  Look for footnotes, endnotes, a reference list, or a bibliography, and ensure that most of the sources cited also appear scholarly.  Few or no citations, or citations for non-academic works, are signs suggesting that you are not looking at a scholarly source.
  • How is the information presented in the source?  Unlike many popular sources, scholarly sources don't aim to attract the reader with glossy pages and colourful pictures and font.  Most academic works consist primarily of text, though some may include many graphs, charts, and diagrams.  When there are pictures, they are usually used sparingly and only to support points made in the text.  Be wary of sources that are heavily illustrated with many colour graphics.

NOTE: When determining whether or not an article in a serial publication is scholarly, you may also want to consult the table on the evaluating articles page.

Evaluating Articles

Just because information has been printed in a journal or similar serial publication doesn't mean that it is necessarily accurate or appropriate to use in your research.  Consider asking the following questions before citing an article in your work:

Authority: Can you trust the source?

  • Who is the author? What are the author's credentials or other qualifications? Is the author a recognized authority in the relevant field of study?
  • Is the article published in a reputable scholarly journal (see table below)?  Did the article undergo a peer review process (see section on Ulrichsweb below)?
  • How many times has the article been cited by other researchers?

Currency: Is the information up to date?

  • When was the article published?
  • Is the information time-sensitive? Some types of information   go out of date quickly (e.g. medical knowledge).

Purpose: Why was the article written?

  • Who is the intended audience? Is the article written for an academic or popular audience?
  • Does the author present a balanced view of the topic? Are opposing viewpoints and counterevidence acknowledged?
  • Can you identify any major conflicts of interest (e.g. medical researchers employed or funded by pharmaceutical companies)?

Content: Is the information that the article presents quality academic research?

  • Is the article organized in a logical and understandable manner?
  • Are the author's arguments well-reasoned and supported by sufficient evidence?
  • Does the article include a bibliography or reference list? Is it lengthy? Are the materials cited primarily scholarly sources?  Are they a mix of primary and secondary sources, or only secondary sources?

Is my journal article "scholarly"?

It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between scholarly journals and other periodicals (such as trade journals and popular magazines). Here are a few things to consider:

Scholarly Journal

Trade Journal Popular Magazine
Title Descriptive and precise. The words "Journal," "Transactions," "Proceedings," or "Quarterly" often appear in the title. Descriptive. Usually identify a particular industry or area of interest (e.g., “Architect’s Journal,” “Chemical and Engineering News”) Less descriptive than trade or scholarly journal titles. May not indicate the magazine’s focus or intended audience
Author Professors and other researchers who are considered to be authorities in their field of study Professional journalists, freelance writers, or working professionals who are knowledgeable about a specific trade, profession, or industry Professional journalists, freelance writers, or staff writers who often lack specialized training in the field in which they are reporting
Editor Peer review process No peer review; editors work for publisher No peer review; editors work for publisher
Publisher Scholarly organizations, professional societies, University presses Professional societies, trade organizations Commercial (for-profit) publishers
Audience Scholars, researchers, and students with specialized knowledge of a particular field Members of a particular industry, trade, or profession The general public
Purpose To report on original research; to provide in-depth, specialized information on a narrow topic; to facilitate communication between scholars To provide practical information to industry professionals; to report on industry trends; to facilitate communication between working professionals To provide general information; to express public opinion; to entertain the general public
Publication Schedule and Volume/Issue Numbering

Generally published monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, or annually.

Volume and issue numbers are important to note for your citations

Publication schedules vary.

Record the date of publication and volume number for your citations

Often published weekly or monthly.

Record the date of publication and volume number for your citations

Writing Style Written in formal language. May contain academic jargon or technical terms May contain industry-specific jargon or technical terms Informal writing style; accessible to a wide audience
Bibliography All references are carefully cited. Bibliographies are always present at the end of the article and can be very long (e.g., several pages of citations) May include a short bibliography Citations are not usually provided; the reader may have no way of verifying the information cited in the article

Evaluating Websites

The Web can be a valuable research tool, but not all online sources are equally credible. Because anyone can publish anything online, it is important to think critically about the information you find on the Web. Before you cite an online source in your work, consider the questions below.  Also, remember that many quality sources are not available on the Internet, especially for free.  Be sure to consult the library's print and electronic collections when conducting research.

Authority: Can you trust the source?

  • Can you identify the author?
  • If the author is an individual, what are his or her credentials or other qualifications? Is the author a recognized authority in the relevant field of study?
  • If the author is a corporation, government body, or special interest group, what can you find out about the organization?
  • What is the domain of the website?  Some domains (e.g. .edu, .gov, .gc.ca) indicate that the webpage is hosted by a government or educational institution.  These are more likely to provide reliable information. 

Currency: Is the information up to date?

  • Are you able to determine when the website or webpage was created?  When was the page last updated?
  • Is the information time-sensitive? Some types of information   go out of date quickly (e.g. medical knowledge).

Purpose: Why was the website/page created?

  • Who is the intended audience? Is the information written for an academic or popular audience?
  • Is the website/page intended to inform? To persuade? To sell a product?
  • Does the author present a balanced view of the topic? Are opposing viewpoints acknowledged?

Content: Is the information that the website/page presents quality academic research?

  • Is the website/page organized in a logical and understandable manner?
  • Are the author's arguments well-reasoned and supported by sufficient evidence?  Can you verify the information elsewhere?
  • Does the author cite his or her sources? Are there many citations? Are the materials cited primarily scholarly sources?  Are they a mix of primary and secondary sources, or only secondary sources?