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Evaluating Sources

A guide to evaluating the credibility of the sources of information you use in your assignments.

Scholarly and popular journals compared






New Scientist magazine cover



Journal of Evolutionary Biology cover 



To inform and entertain a general audience.


To present and/or report on original research.


Usually colourful and attractive; articles often have lots of illustrations and photographs.


Generally contain few colourful photographs.  May have technical charts and graphs as necessary.


Articles are shorter, more superficial, often including a generalised overview of topics.

May be useful as introductory background reading to a new subject.


Articles are longer, more in-depth and narrowly focused.

There is usually an abstract (summary) of the article.



Language generally non-technical with no specialist knowledge assumed.

Unfamiliar terms and concepts are usually defined.


Technical language (jargon) which assumes specialised background knowledge.



The authors are often journalists with little or no specialist knowledge of the subject.  Their credentials are rarely given.


Authors' credentials as an expert are explicitly presented, usually on the first page.



No original research other than background reading and interviews is involved.


Presents the results of original research.



Rarely cites sources.


All articles are rigorously referenced with all sources cited.  Usually contains footnotes and bibliography.

Peer Review?

Articles are approved for publication by the editor.


Articles are approved for publication after review by the author's scholarly peers.

How to recognise a scholarly book

Primary, secondary and tertiary sources


Sources of information are generally categorised as primary, secondary or tertiary depending on their originality and their proximity to the source or origin.

For example, scientific information moves through a dissemination cycle. Initially, findings might be communicated informally by email, then presented at meetings before being formally published as a primary source. Once published, they will then be indexed in a bibliographic database, and repackaged and commented upon by others in secondary sources.

The designations of primary, secondary and tertiary differ between disciplines or subjects, particularly between what can generally be defined as the sciences and the humanities.

Primary sources for a critic studying the literature of the Second World War are different from those for a research scientist investigating a new drug for arthritis. The critic's primary sources are the poems, stories, and films of the era. The research scientist's primary sources are the results of laboratory tests and the medical records of patients treated with the drug. You should always check with your lecturer or tutor if in doubt.

Why can't I just Google?

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