The technological advances of the past few decades—particularly the rise of online media—mean that, as a twenty-first-century student, you have countless sources of information available at your fingertips. But how can you tell whether a source is reliable? This reading will discuss strategies for evaluating sources critically so that you can be a savvy researcher.

Remember, research should inform your writing, not the other way around. Rather than beginning with an argument and trying to find sources to support your ideas, begin with a question and use your research to create your argument. The most effective way to begin researching any topic is to write down some questions. Make it your mission to discover as much as possible about your topic. Only after your research is complete should you formulate a clear thesis.

Locating Useful Resources

Over the past few weeks, you have been studying two different voices/stances on one issue. You have looked at articles, visual texts, and digital texts to discover the rhetorical stances taken by each side of the topic you’ve chosen. You may even have begun identifying some shared values and have some ideas about the stance you will take in your paper. Now it is time to conduct a more focused, systematic search for informative primary and secondary sources that will help you make a strong argument.

Primary vs Secondary Sources

Writers classify research resources in two categories: primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are direct, firsthand sources of information or data. For example, if you were writing a paper about the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, the text of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights would be a primary source.

Other primary sources include the following:

  • Research articles
  • Literary texts
  • Historical documents such as diaries or letters
  • Autobiographies or other personal accounts

Secondary sources discuss, interpret, analyze, consolidate, or otherwise rework information from primary sources. In researching a paper about the First Amendment, you might read articles about legal cases that involved First Amendment rights, or editorials expressing commentary on the First Amendment. These sources would be considered secondary sources because they are one step removed from the primary source of information.

The following are examples of secondary sources:

  • Magazine articles
  • Biographical books
  • Literary and scientific reviews
  • Television documentaries

Your topic and purpose determine whether you must cite both primary and secondary sources in your paper. Ask yourself which sources are most likely to provide the information that you need to make an effective argument.

Once you have thought about what kinds of sources are most likely to help you answer your research questions, you may begin your search for print and electronic resources. The challenge here is to conduct your search efficiently. Writers use strategies to help them find the sources that are most relevant and reliable while steering clear of sources that will not be useful.

Locating Sources

For academic arguments, you want to focus on scholarly sources as much as possible. However, you might find valuable sources in a variety of places.

  • The YC Library Article Databases
  • .gov sites that include studies and statistical information
  • Articles published by newspapers and magazines
  • Credible websites

Evaluating Overall Quality by Asking Questions

When you evaluate a source, you will consider the criteria previously discussed as well as your overall impressions of its quality. Read carefully, and notice how well the author presents and supports his or her statements. Stay actively engaged—do not simply accept an author’s words as truth. Ask questions to determine each source’s value. Here are ten questions to ask yourself as a critical reader.

  • Is the type of source appropriate for my purpose? Is it a high-quality source or one that needs to be looked at more critically?
  • Can I establish that the author is credible and the publication is reputable?
  • Does the author support ideas with specific facts and details that are carefully documented? Is the source of the author’s information clear? (When you use secondary sources, look for sources that are not too removed from primary research.)
  • Does the source include any factual errors or instances of faulty logic?
  • Does the author leave out any information that I would expect to see in a discussion of this topic?
  • Do the author’s conclusions logically follow from the evidence that is presented? Can I see how the author got from one point to another?
  • Is the writing clear and organized, and is it free from errors, clichés, and empty buzzwords? Is the tone objective, balanced, and reasonable? (Be on the lookout for extreme, emotionally charged language.)
  • Are there any obvious biases or agendas? Based on what I know about the author, are there likely to be any hidden agendas?
  • Are graphics informative, useful, and easy to understand? Are websites organized, easy to navigate, and free of clutter like flashing ads and unnecessary sound effects?
  • Is the source contradicted by information found in other sources? (If so, it is possible that your sources are presenting similar information but taking different perspectives, which requires you to think carefully about which sources you find more convincing and why. Be suspicious, however, of any source that presents facts that you cannot confirm elsewhere.)

Here is a quick video with some tips on taking notes while reading. This person uses Evernote, but you can use Microsoft Word (or even pen and paper) in much the same way:

MLA Citation

MLA citation is the format used for citing sources in the humanities. Correctly citing your sources is important because it adds credibility to your own writing (ethos!) and it shows respect for the integrity of an authors’ work. MLA citation has two parts–the Works Cited page and the in-text citation.

The Works Cited page is a list of all of your sources. This page should be on its own page, separate from the rest of your paper (use the insert page break tool to do this!), it should be double spaced, sources should use a hanging indent, and sources should be in alphabetical order.

The in-text citation is simply a reference to the Works Cited listing so that readers can easily find the source you’ve used and read it in more detail if they wish. The in-text citation should match EXACTLY the first word/s of the Works Cited listing.

Several common examples are listed below. Remember, you can use the “cite” button in the databases at the YC Library to get the correct citation, and you can use citationmachine.net to get the correct citation for most websites. The OWL at Purdue is a great resource if you need more help citing a source.


Works Cited:  “Castles in Medieval Times.” yourchildlearns.com. 2000. Owl and Mouse Educational Software. 9 March  2003, <http://www.yourchildlearns.com/castle_history.htm>. Accessed July 29, 2011.

In text:  (Castles)

A film: 

Works Cited:  The Empire Strikes Back.
Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher. Twentieth Century Fox, 1980.

In text:  (The Empire)

Article online:

Works Cited:  Achenbach, Joel.  “America’s river.”  Washington Post.  5 May 2002. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A13425-2202May1.html>. Accessed 20 July 2003.

In text (Achenbach)

A book:

Works Cited:  Gorman, Elizabeth. Prairie Women. Yale University Press, 1986.

In text:  (Gorman)


Works Cited: B., Elizabeth. “Olsen’s Grain.” Yelp, 10/4/16. https://www.yelp.com/biz/olsens-grain-prescott?hrid=HjFTGmfTuS6rvsmVpTNZfQ&utm_campaign=www_review_share_popup&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_source=(direct). Accessed 10/10/16.

In Text: (B., Elizabeth)

Note that the in text citation (what is in parenthesis after a quote) is the first word in the Works Cited listing.  Every source listed in your Works Cited should be cited at least once in the text of the paper.



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