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SOWK 503/505: Evaluating Information Resources

Evaluating Sources Tutorial

Scholarly vs. Popular Sources

In your education, you'll hear a distinction between popular and scholarly sources -- but what is the difference?

Not everyting found in a library is scholarly, and not everything found through a search engine is popular. Scholarly sources are those that are created by and intended for academic use and are almost always peer-reviewed. These sources appear in university repositories and in academic journals.

Popular sources are those freely available online and are intended for the general public. Popular sources are not "worse" than scholarly sources, they just have different uses! For instance, government reports, statistics, and non-profit agency reports are considered popular sources because they are intended for the general public and can be found freely online.

Here are some other key differences:

Citations:

Some popular sources will cite others, but rarely with full bibliographic information. All scholarly sources cite others and provide full citations.

Format:

Popular sources are highly variable -- they may come as basic websites, blogs, reports, or infographics. Scholarly sources have a consistent format with an abstract, introduction, results/discussion, and a reference list.  Refer to this site for more information about the anatomy of a scholarly article.

Peer Review:

Popular sources do not undergo peer review; though some sources may undergo a substatianal revision process, it does not compare to the academic peer review. All scholarly sources are peer reviewed; for more information about the peer review process, see this video from Western University Libraries.

Understanding the Information Cycle

The Information Cycle is the progression of media coverage of a particular newsworthy event.  Understanding the information cycle will help you to better know what information is available on your topic and better evaluate information sources covering that topic.

Evaluating Popular or Web-Based Sources

When finding non-scholarly resources, ask yourself the following questions to determine if they are appropriate to use:

Currency: Is this source up-to-date? Might there be newer sources that contradict, expand, or support this source?

Relevancy: Is this source relevant to my topic or question?

Accuracy: Is this source accurate? Does its logic make sense to me? Are there any internal contradictions? Does it link or refer to its sources?

Authority: Who created or authored this source? Could the author or creator bring any biases to the information presented? Is the author or creator a reputable or well-respected agent in the subject area?

Purpose: Is this source intended to educate, inform, or sell? What is the purpose of this source?

Sorting Google Results

Google can be a powerful research tool that helps you find policy and legislative data, statistics, policy reports, and more. The trick is knowing how to get Google to find the good stuff for you.

Know your domains:

The end of a web address (URL), after the dot, is the domain. For example, www.usc.edu, edu is the domain. You can use domains to filter out your Google results. 

Common domains are:

edu -- educational sites

org -- non-profit sites

gov -- government sites

I know that many statistics are available on government sites, so I can have Google search for sites that end in gov.

Google domain filtering:

Add the words "site:.gov" (or org/edu/com/etc.) to the end of your Google search. Use a semicolon to separate domains.

The search below is asking Google to find sources about HIV infections in Los Angeles, and limiting my results to websites that end in .gov or .org -- in other words, I only want results from government or non-profit organizations.