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American National Government: Evaluating Sources

This research guide is for students researching the American National Government.

The Pros and Cons of Different Source Types

Pro:

  • Peer-reviewed: experts read and comment on quality of article prior to publication
  • Authority is clear
  • Articles written by the experts themselves, not by outside journalists
  • Almost always include citations
  • Often affiliated with professional organizations
  • Less influenced by ad revenue than magazines and newspapers

Con:

  • Not cheap or easy to find outside of academia
  • Publish articles less frequently than newspapers or websites = not suitable for breaking news
  • Written for experts in the field; can be too technical for a newcomer or casual reader

Intended Audience: Scholars, researchers, professionals, and university students in particular field

Watch for: "Predatory" or "pay to publish" online journals

Pro:

  • Current information
  • Specialized articles related to a particular discipline or profession (including context and analysis)

Con:

  • Sources not always cited
  • Articles vary between short and easy to lengthy and highly specific

Intended Audience: Professional organizations or professionals/scholars with similar interests

What For / Consider: Has characteristics in common with both popular magazines and scholarly journals

Pro:

  • More space than newspapers, magazines, or journals results in greater depth of information
  • Often include tables of contents and indexes for easy navigation and discovery
  • Often include footnotes, endnotes, and/or bibliographies
  • Most books undergo some sort of editorial process (usually writer - editor)

Con:

  • Take more time to read than other sources
  • Can take months or even years to publish
  • Many books do not undergo peer review
  • Rise in self-publishing means more unedited or poorly edited books reach publication

Intended Audience: Varies (general audience through scholars)

What For / Consider: Information may be dated due to the time it takes to publish a book.

Pro:

  • More space than newspapers = longer articles, more depth
  • Published faster than books
  • Articles undergo an editorial process involving many people: reporter to editor to copy editor
  • Authority is clear for most articles

Con:

  • Less space than books
  • Publish articles less frequently than websites or newspapers; information can be outdated by press time
  • Reporters often aren’t experts and are writing for general audiences, not experts
  • Articles are not peer-reviewed
  • Rely on advertising and subscription revenue

Intended Audience: General audience or those with a specific, recreational interest (e.g. sports, fashion, science, etc.)

What For / Consider: Potential editorial bias

Pro:

  • Published more frequently than magazines, journals, or books
  • Articles undergo an editorial process involving many people -- reporter to editor to copy editor
  • Authority is clear for most articles

Con:

  • Space limitations = shorter articles, less detail
  • Publish articles less frequently than websites; information can be outdated by press time
  • Reporters often aren’t experts and are writing for general audiences, not experts
  • Articles are not peer-reviewed
  • Rely on advertising and subscription revenue

Intended Audience: General audience

What For / Consider: Contains both fact-based reporting and editorial content (opinions). Opinions may be biased.

Pro:

  • Easy to find using Google
  • Often have higher editorial and design standards than personal websites
  • Often managed by professional writers and designers
  • Government websites are designed to inform citizens

Con:

  • Commercial interests may come first
  • Articles are written for general audiences
  • Bylines often missing and works rarely cited

Intended Audience: General audience

What For / Consider: Governmental and educational websites have higher credibility than commercial websites

Pro:

  • Articles easy to find using the site’s search field or Google
  • Articles about current events updated frequently
  • Best articles are edited by a crowd of interested and informed writers
  • Useful for background information

Con:

  • Editorial standards set by community; minimal oversight from Wikipedia staff
  • Articles on obscure topics can go untouched for months
  • Non-experts have just as much editorial control as experts
  • Worst articles are poorly written and poorly sourced
  • Instructors do not allow use as a source

Intended Audience: General audience

What For / Consider: Use the reference list to find other sources that can used

Pro:

  • Easy to find through Google
  • Might be updated quickly and frequently
  • Direct access to person / author
  • Access to scholarly work in progress
  • Expansion of published work

Con:

  • No editorial standards or oversight = author can express opinions, biases, and incorrect information with few consequences
  • May not include information about the author, date of publication, or sources cited (if any)
  • Vary widely in quality and reliability

Intended Audience: General audience through scholars depending on the source

What For / Consider: High potential for bias. Usually informal.

Is It Credible?

Who created the information? Affiliations, qualifications/credentials, reputation, contact info, etc. Who published it? Who paid for it? Does the creator or publisher have a bias or a point-of-view that might affect the information?

What is the evidence? Do the claims make sense? Can claims be fact-checked? Are stories, hearsay, or innuendo used as “proof?” Do the facts given logically lead to the conclusions made?

When was the article published? When was it revised or updated? Is timeliness important for the topic or not?

Where is it published – popular magazine, academic journal, blog, news, website, etc.? If it’s a website, what kind? Newspapers, magazines, and some journals web publish. Was the information edited, reviewed, or refereed? By whom? Where did the author get their information? Are they citing sources? If so, are those sources credible? 

Why was the information created? How is it meant to affect its audience? Why are they telling me this? To inform, teach, sell, entertain, persuade, or something else?

Who or what is missing that might change the interpretation or understanding of the information?

Source: Who is providing the information?

Motivation: Why are they telling me this?

Evidence. What evidence is provided for generalizations?

Logic: Do the facts logically compel the conclusions?

Left Out: What’s missing that might change our interpretation of the information?

Find out more about the SMELL Test.

Currency: How timely is the information?

Relevance: How closely does the information meet your needs?

Authority: Who or what is the source of the information?

Accuracy: How reliable, truthful, and correct is the content?

Purpose: Why does the information exist?


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