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A Guide to Database and Catalog Searching: Choosing and Evaluating Sources of Information

How to access and search library databases and catalog

Evaluating Web Resources

The World Wide Web offers students, teachers and researchers the opportunity to find information and data from all over the world. The Web is easy to use, both for finding information and for publishing it. Because so much information is available, and because that information can appear to be fairly “anonymous”, it is necessary to develop skills to evaluate what you find.

Because anyone can write a Web page, documents of the widest range of quality, written by authors of the widest range of authority, are available on an “even playing field.” Excellent resources reside alongside the most dubious.

Criteria For Web Page Evaluation:

1.  What evidence is there that the author of the Web information has some authority in the field about which he or she is providing information? What are the author's qualifications, credentials, and connections to the topic?

2.  Is the author affiliated or associated with any well-known organization or institution?  Is there a link to the sponsoring organization, a contact number and/or address or e-mail contact?

3.  Are there clues that the author is biased?  For example, is the author selling or promoting a product?  Is the author taking a personal stand on a social/political issue or being objective?  Is the author part of or representing a group that may be biased?  Bias is not necessarily "bad," but all connections should be clear. 

4.  Is the information current?  Check links to other web sites as well as the date the page was last updated.  If there are links that do not work or the page has not been updated in some time, the information included may not be current.

5.  Does the page have a complete list of works cited that reference credible, well-known sources?  If the information is not corroborated by external sources, what is the author's relationship to the subject?  Can he or she give an "expert" opinion?  Are all resources web-based or are there credible print sources listed also?

6. On what kind of Web site does the information appear? The site can give you clues about the credibility of the source.  A personal homepage might not be as credible as a professional or educational web page.  Look at the URL and backtrack to find the original institution offering the page.

7.  Is the page cluttered or loaded with unnecessary graphics?  An overabundance of images that are not related to the content of the page is sometimes used to compensate for a lack of quality information.  Too many “bells and whistles” may indicate that the author is not serious about the content of the page.

8.  Is the page visually appealing and well organized with information offered in an easy-to-use searchable format?  A page that buries content may have something to hide.

An Example of Evaluation

Consider these two web pages dealing with the topic of secondhand smoke...

The first page, created by the National Cancer Institute on its dot gov website, is well organized, easy to read, and current.  It is published by a credible government entity, includes citations/links to scientific research and contact information. 

The page features no advertising and no extraneous graphics or links.  In short, it is everything a professional web page should be, and a good source of usable information

Secondhand Smoke and Cancer Factsheet

Now, look at this second page and note the differences.  Rather than a professional web host, this page is hosted by smokingsection.com - immediately indicating bias.  The author does list his name, but no credentials and no contact information aside from an email address. 

The language of the page is filled with inflammatory rhetoric likening the persecution of smokers in the United States to the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis.  This author obviously let emotion guide his writing.  It may look like he is presenting factual information, but upon close reading it is apparent he is not.  Additionally the page features related advertising from the Smoker's Bookstore, uses a dark background and difficult to read text. 

In short, this page shows a lack of credibility and is not a good research source.

Essays on the Anti-Smoking Movement

Scholarly vs. Popular

There are several types of periodical publications; most of your academic coursework, you will be asked to use scholarly, or "peer-reviewed" journal articles. NSULA Libraries have some print journals and magazines, but most are in online databases. Many online-only communications are also available, though not in databases, such as homepages, blogs, podcasts, and social media

If your professor tells you to find scholarly sources for your paper, choose academic or scholarly journals. However, some magazines, like Harpers, Scientific American, Billboard, and The New Republic, can also be good sources of information for speeches or less formal papers. These include in-depth articles that are geared toward readers who, though not experts in the field, are knowledgeable about the issues discussed. Magazines like People, Sports Illustrated, or Rolling Stone are not the best sources to use for your paper--unless your subject is related to popular culture.

Scholarly periodicals publish articles written usually by scholars in an academic or professional field and edited by a professional organization or academic press. Magazines and newspapers are popular periodicals.  They contain articles about different topics of popular interest and current events. A third category is in between these two, "trade  papers" or "house organs," which are professional magazines published by professional or scholarly associations which feature news, conference announcements and recaps, and other information pertinent to the discipline.

These categories are blurring, however, because of the increasing commercialization of publishing and online distribution. The distinctions below are broad generalizations.

  Scholarly (Journal) Popular or General (Magazine) Trade Paper

Title

A basic subject indicator; often contains the word "review," "journal," or "quarterly."

Usually a short, snappy title designed to catch the attention of the casual reader.

Often the name of the subject or organization, with the word "news," "professional," or  "bulletin."

Articles

Most are research-oriented, technical, or scholarly in content.

Often begin with an abstract and the credentials of the author/s.

May have charts or graphs and sometimes photographs

Conclude with a bibliography of sources used

 Most cover popular, current, or general interest topics

Often include illustrations and photographs

Author not always identified

Rarely include references

More likely to include news and professional development rather than scholarship.

Advertising

For professional products and services

A great deal of all kinds

Pertinent to the organization or field.

Publishers

Usually universities, professional organizations, or academic publishing companies (Elsevier, taylor-Francis, McGrawHill, Sage, Wiley).

Commercial

An organization, society, or agency.

Audience

Professionals/scholars in the field

General public or a specific group interested in the subject.

Members of the organization; students and others interested in it.

Examples

New England Journal of Medicine

Educational Technology Review

Journal of Physical Chemistry

Quarterly Journal of Speech

Time

Vogue

Sports Illustrated

People 

C&RL News

HR Professional

Mathematics Magazine

Dessert Professional

 

                     

 

Let's Compare...

A scholarly journal usually won't have much flashy cover art and will be published by a professional organization or academic press.  The authors are all experts in the field and the articles included in an issue are peer-reviewed prior to publication.  You can usually only get these journals at academic libraries or through membership in a professional organization.  These are the journals you want to use as sources for your research papers.

                              

 

A popular journal, on the other hand, will often feature a celebrity or media personality on the cover and will include articles of general interest on popular culture and current events.  You can pick one of these up at a news stand or check out aisle at the grocery store.  Fun to read, but not what you want to use as a resource for a research paper!

                                   

 

Reference Services

Email reference questions to reference@nsula.edu. Call (318) 357-4574.