Evaluating sources related to your research topic

Even scholarly articles should be read with a critical eye:

  • Did the authors actually prove their point?
  • Does their data support their thesis?
  • Are their data any good?

That healthy skepticism is even more important when evaluating works found on the internet. Try to find out information about the authors and organizations behind the article. Do they have an agenda? Use the CRAAP test below to help you.

Call or email the library to let us know how we can help. Our toll-free number is 800-638-1821.

Topics on this page

How to spot fake news

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Click away from the story to investigate the site, its mission and its contact information.

READ BEYOND

Headlines can be outrageous in an effort to get clicks. What’s the whole story?

CHECK THE AUTHOR

Do a quick search on the authors. Are they credible? Are they real?

SUPPORTING SOURCES?

Click on those links. Determine if the info given actually supports the story.

CHECK THE DATE

Reposting old news stories doesn’t mean they’re relevant to current events.

IS IT A JOKE?

If it is too outlandish, it might be satire. Research the site and author to be sure.

CHECK YOUR BIASES

Consider if your own beliefs could affect your judgment.

ASK THE EXPERTS

Ask a librarian, or consult a fact-checking site.

Source: International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions

The CRAAP test

The CRAAP Test is a useful guide to evaluating resources. CRAAP is an acronym for the general categories of criteria that can be used to evaluate information you find. Use the CRAAP Test to decide if information is appropriate for your research.

Currency

  • When was the information published or posted?
  • Has the site been revised or updated?
  • Is the information current or out-of-date for your topic?
  • Are the links functional?

Relevance

  • Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
  • Who is the intended audience?

Authority

  • Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
  • Are the author’s credentials or organizational affiliations given?
  • What are the author’s credentials and/or qualifications to write on the topic?
  • Is there contact information, such as a publisher or e-mail address?

Accuracy

  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
  • Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
  • Are there spelling, grammar or typographical errors?

Purpose

  • Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional or personal biases?
  • Is the author selling something?
  • Does the author make his or her intentions or purpose clear?
  • Is the information provided factual? Can it be verified?
  • Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?

The CRAAP Test in action: Websites

Evaluating websites

Scholarly articles versus trade journals: What’s the difference?

Trade journals are written specifically for practitioners by other members who are knowledgeable in the field. They’re a valuable source for current trends, best practices, lessons learned and much more. However, they don’t undergo a peer-review process nor are they written or structured in a way designed to present and defend new, original research for the profession. The table below outlines the key differences between scholarly and trade journals.

 ScholarlyTrade/Technical
AudienceResearchers, studentsProfessionals in the field
AuthorCurrent researcher or scholarProfessionals or journalists with background
LanguageUniversity level, specialized vocabularySpecialist jargon and terminology
Peer-reviewYesNo; reviewed by staff editors
PublisherProfessional organizations, universities, research institutesProfessional associations, commercial enterprises
PurposeReport on original research, refute or support theories of othersFocus on information for professionals
CitesFootnotes, bibliographies, in-text citationsMay have footnotes or bibliography

The case for scholarly articles

Scholarly articles have an authority and a credibility that other sources do not have. They are written by experts for experts and students in the field. Peer-reviewed, or refereed, articles undergo a higher level of scrutiny than other articles accepted for publication. After an article is submitted to a journal, the editor will then send it out to other researchers in the field who will check the research methodology, look at the data, and generally evaluate the quality of the manuscript.

Not all scholarly sources are published in journals; books, dissertations and theses, white papers, and reports by think tanks and non-governmental organizations can also be considered scholarly.

Articles in peer-reviewed or scholarly journals almost always report on original research. Scholarly articles generally contain the following elements:

  • Author(s) credentials or academic affiliation
  • Abstract
  • Research methodology
  • Conclusion or research results
  • References
  • Bibliography

Scholarly vs. popular periodicals

Scholarly journals at the NETC Library

Periodical index coverage
Here is a list of the scholarly journals that we have subscribed to and indexed. This list does not provide a complete picture of all that we have indexed. In addition, we purchase scores of individual articles each year and add them to our collection as off-prints. Our off-prints appear in scholarly journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine or Health Physics
Special collection: All-hazards articles in scholarly literature
Explore our unique database of more than 20,000 scholarly/peer-reviewed articles covering all-hazards topics, as well as some 5,000 proceedings from academic, non-government organizations, and governmental conferences and workshops.
READING SCHOLARLY LITERATURE

Reading Scholarly Literature (part 1): Overview

Keep in mind your own research question(s) as you begin to read the article. Don’t read it like you would a book, line by line, and page by page.

Read the abstract first to see if you should even bother reading the whole article. The abstract will often tell you why the author(s) did the study, how they did it, what they found and what it means. Can you find what the stated purpose of the article is and does it relate to your research question? If yes, then read on.

Then, skim the structure of the article. Scholarly articles will typically have an Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Results, Discussion and Conclusion sections.

Next, jump ahead in the article to the Discussion and Conclusion sections of the paper. Sometimes there may also be a paragraph on directions for future research. In the Discussion section, the author(s) will typically try to describe how the results support the conclusion. Are the findings unique or persuasive? Do you agree or disagree with the claims? Ask yourself again if the paper meets your research needs. If it does not, set it aside. If it does, take good notes and keep going.

Now skip back to the Introduction and see if you can identify the author’s hypothesis or intent. The introduction may contain a summary of previous related research or there may be a separate section called Literature Review. Try to understand how this paper relates to others in the field. You may want to note important works cited here so you can look at those papers as well.

By now, you may have gotten what you need from the article. However, you can read on in the Methods section to learn more about how the study was conducted. The Results section will often contain data, statistics, graphs which you may skim thru in order to flesh out your understanding of the Discussion section. You probably do not need to fully immerse yourself though unless you are well-acquainted with statistics and want to replicate the study yourself.

Finally, go back and closely read a second time any section(s) that offered particularly useful material when you read it the first time. Make sure you are satisfied with your notes.

A brief word on statistics

There’s not enough space here to write in-depth on the statistics you’ll encounter in the scholarly articles you find. You may already have some passing familiarity with basic terms, but if not, there are some very helpful online sites you can refer to below. Some quick tips:

  • Take notice any time the words “significant” or “non-significant” are used. These have important statistical meanings. Read more about this.
  • You’ll often see significance expressed in terms of p-values. Researchers determine p-values by a formula that shows the probability of whether the results they measured were simply due to chance. The smaller the p-value the more statistically significant are the results.
  • Sample size. Has the study been conducted on 10 or 10,000 people? For some qualitative research purposes, a sample size of 10 might be okay, but otherwise larger is better. More on p-values and sample sizes.
  • For more discussion of other commonly used statistical terms in research articles, start out with the Writing with Statistics overview at the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

Sources:

  • Purugganan, M. & Hewitt, J. (2004). How to read a scientific article. Retrieved from http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/ ~cainproj/courses/HowToReadSciArticle.pdf .
  • Dunifon, R. How to read a research article. (2005) Retrieved from http://clarkep.faculty.yosemite.edu/general/How% 20to%20Read%20a%20Research%20Article%20By%20Rachel%20Dunifon.pdf .

Reading Scholarly Literature (part 2): Recording quotes

While you’re reading the article take time to carefully record some useful quotes. Don’t fall into the habit of jotting down or typing out quotes without taking care to note where exactly you read them. This can lead to charges of plagiarism later. The time you put into capturing good citations will save you a lot more time down the road when preparing your own Literature Review section and your Reference List.

Quotes can take two forms, either paraphrasing or direct quotation. Paraphrasing by restating an author’s idea using your own words is preferred but you can quote directly from time to time if necessary. Here are two examples of how your quotes should appear.

Paraphrasing:
Personnel that sense the feeling of being wanted are more likely to promote change and reinforce management decisions with positive outcomes (Greenberg, 2010, p. 416).
Direct quoting:
According to Coleman (1985) “fire moves upwards and outward; therefore…occur” (p. 25).

Please see the template in part 3 for tips on taking notes and recording quotes.

Sources:

  • Purugganan, M. & Hewitt, J. (2004). How to read a scientific article. Retrieved from http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/ ~cainproj/courses/HowToReadSciArticle.pdf .
  • Dunifon, R. How to read a research article. (2005) Retrieved from http://clarkep.faculty.yosemite.edu/general/How% 20to%20Read%20a%20Research%20Article%20By%20Rachel%20Dunifon.pdf .

Reading Scholarly Literature (part 3): Taking notes

  • Don’t read scholarly articles passively.
  • Read them critically by asking yourself as you go along what the main purpose, points and conclusions are.
  • A best practice is to type or write down notes as you read.
  • Use or adapt this template, filling one out for every article you may read.
  • This will be a big timesaver later.

Notes template

Complete citationAuthor(s). Publication year. Article title. Journal title, volume number, issue number, page numbers
Accessed online? URL and date accessed 
Purpose of the study 
Central hypothesis or claim 
Main points 
SignificanceHow does it relate to your research idea and the work of others?
Suggestions for further research? 
Conclusion 
Quote 1 
Quote 2You may want more than two quotes.
Cited references to follow-up on later 

Sources:

  • Purugganan, M. & Hewitt, J. (2004). How to read a scientific article. Retrieved from http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/ ~cainproj/courses/HowToReadSciArticle.pdf .
  • Dunifon, R. How to read a research article. (2005) Retrieved from http://clarkep.faculty.yosemite.edu/general/How% 20to%20Read%20a%20Research%20Article%20By%20Rachel%20Dunifon.pdf .

Trade journals at the NETC Library

Fire Engineering, Firehouse, EMS World and others are trade journals, which are written by practitioners for other members of the field. These articles do not undergo peer review nor are they designed to present original research for the profession, but they are a valuable resource for trends, best practices and lessons learned.

Journal cover: Asia Pacific Fire Magazine
Journal cover: Crisis response journal
Journal cover: EH Today
Journal cover: EMS World
Journal cover: Fire Chief
Journal cover: Fire Engineering
Journal cover: JEMS
Journal cover: NFPA Journal

Use statistics

Another resource that will up the credibility quotient of your research project is the use of statistics from credible sources such as those listed below.

  • Amazon Web Services Public Datasets – Customizable and downloadable public data sets covering everything from the human genome to satellite data.
  • American Community Survey – Ongoing yearly survey that collects data on jobs, education, home ownership and other topics.
  • American FactFinder – US population, housing, economic, and geographic data.
  • American Red Cross GIS Fire Mapping Tool – Includes layers for nationwide fire incidents, fire deaths, fire injuries, social vulnerability, age and income.
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics – National numbers on a whole gamut of topics including employment, prices and productivity, workplace injuries, and wages and benefits.
  • Census Explorer – Interactive map series from the Census Bureau.
  • Data.gov – More than 175,000 data sets on fourteen topics including health, public safety and the environment.
  • Google Public Data – Statistics from international organizations, national statistical offices, non-governmental organizations, and research institutions translated into charts, graphs and animations.
  • National Center for Health Statistics – Statistics arm of the US Centers for Disease Control.
  • UNdata – Global statistics from the United Nations.
  • UNESCO Institute of Statistics – The statistical arm of UNESCO provides comparative country data on science, technology and education.
  • USA location information – Data concerning cities, towns, neighborhoods, metro areas, zip codes, area codes and schools.
  • U.S. Fire Administration statistics – Data from a variety of sources and analyses on the status and scope of the fire problem in the United States.

Keep a research log

A research log is a diary of the databases, search terms and search strategies you used; the resources you found; and your evaluation of these resources. Documenting your research process helps you keep track of your steps as well as think about the choices you make as a researcher. This log will help you see the big picture of research and more carefully consider the resources you select for an assignment.

For each source in your log, document the following: