Key questions for evaluating source relevance
- What is it about? The title will be your first immediate clue. If available, read the abstract (a summary of the article). If there is no abstract, read the article introduction and scan the article headings. Consider how the item relates to your research question and how you might use it.
- What is the subject area focus? Knowing what discipline an article comes from can help you decide if the article is relevant. For example, if you are researching global warming activism for a political science class, an article on global warming from a chemistry journal may not be helpful if it doesn't focus on political issues. Look at the title of the book or article or the journal title to try to determine the subject area.
- Are you looking for recent information? If so, look carefully at publication dates. If you are not sure how recent you need the information to be, do some background information on your topic to see if there have been any recent changes or legislation. For example, if you are researching same-sex marriage, older articles might say that it is not legal in every state since the US Supreme Court did not legalize marriage equality until June 2015.
- What type of source is it? Consider what types of sources or information you need. For example, sometimes you may be asked to use only scholarly sources.
- Scholarly sources:
For scholarly books, look at the publisher. (Is it a university press or other scholarly press? Do they describe their editorial process? You may need to Google the publisher to figure it out.) For scholarly articles, look at the title of the journal (not the article title). Learn more about determining if an article is scholarly.
Books and articles: Articles tend to focus on a very specific issue or analysis, while books usually address a broader topic. (Note, however, that some books consist of a series of article chapters.) Often the record in a library database will indicate the item type, but you can also tell from the citation.
Research studies: This may only be relevant in courses which require that a specific type of research be used (quantitative, qualitative, experimental, systematic review, etc.). The abstract usually contains clues about the type of study. Most research studies also have a "Methods" section that describes how the research was conducted.
Evaluating relevance with a database record
Looking at the information about a source that you see on the screen (in the database record) can also help with evaluating the source's relevance. Elements to examine include: the article title; journal or book title (this information is often labeled "source" in the database record); publication date; subjects; and often an abstract (article summary).
- Subjects: describe the article topic, can also be used to find other related sources
- Abstract: short summary of the source. In many databases click on the title of the article or book to read the abstract