Skip to main content

Library Research Process: Choosing Your Sources


Getting Started

Eventually, you'll come to a place in your research where you feel overloaded with sources. Oh, you're already there? Perfect! This is actually the place you want to be. When it comes to a reseach project, it's better to have too much than too little. At this stage in your project, you'll now want to take a hard look at your sources and decide what should stay and what should go. How do you choose? There are many factors to take into account when evaluating your sources: relevancy, author bias, publication date, level of scholarlship, type of source, etc. We'll explore all of these options below.

Types of Sources

In the course of your research, you'll run into a variety of sources; which are divided up into roughly two catagories:

  • Primary Sources: enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.  A primary source reflects the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Included in this catagory are:


  • Secondary Sources: less easily defined than primary sources. Generally, they are accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. They are interpretations and evaluations of primary sources. Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence. Included in this catagory are:

               dictionaries, encyclopedias
               journal articles
               magazine and newspaper articles
               books, other than fiction and autobiography
               web sites

Primary sources are taken at face value, but you'll have to look at your secondary sources with a critical eye!

The CRAAP Test

The CRAAP test was originally developed to help researchers evaluate web sources, but the criteria work equally well for both print and electronic materials:

The timeliness of the information.

The depth and importance of the information.

The source of the information.

The reliability of the information.

The possible bias present in the information.

For each item you have found, judge it using the above criteria. And ask yourself: Who wrote it? Does the author have any biases? What is the tone? Does the work cite other sources? How old is this material?

*the CRAAP test was developed at the Meriam Library at California State University Chico

Scholarly/Peer Reviewed Sources

You may come across a research assignment that restricts the sources that you may use to only scholarly and/or peer reviewed sources. The terms are used almost interchangeably in an academic setting, but here are the basic definitions:

Scholarly sources: Articles or books that are written by a scholar or a professional in the field and are often used to report original research or experimentation; usually includes specialized vocabulary and are aimed at an academic audience.

Peer Reviewed sources: Many scholarly journals use a process of peer review prior to publishing an article, whereby other scholars or experts in the author's field or specialty critically assess a draft of the article. This process helps ensure that the published articles reflect solid scholarship in their fields. Peer-reviewed journals are also called refereed journals

How can you tell if if a particular article is peer-reviewed? Often the website of the journal in which it was published will tell you if it is a peer reviewed journal or not, or you can use Ulrich's Periodical Directory (usually found either in print or online at most college libraries) to look up a journal title to find out this information. And of course, you can always ask your nearest librarian for help!

Tips & Tricks

  • Look for sources that support both sides of an argument to get a clear picture of your issue.
  • Just because it comes up in a Google search, doesn't mean it's true. Look for author information when deciding to use a website in a paper.
  • USA Today article does not carry the same weight as a New York Times article; choose your sources carefully.
  • Limiting a web search to just .edu or .gov can help filter out information you don't want; use the "advanced search" in Google to do this.

For More Help...

A librarian can help you evaluate whether the information you have found is reliable.  If your professor wants you to find sources that are 'peer-reviewed', 'primary,' or 'scholarly,' a librarian will be able to help you interpret whether the information you have found meets those criteria.

A librarian can show you ways to evaluate whether the sources you have found are relevant to your topic.

A librarian can show you how to evaluate results from Google, and determine whether information in Wikipedia and other websites is reliable.