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Evaluating Online Information

A guide to thinking critically about the information you find online.

Introduction

You're probably doing most of your academic research online, in library databases or on the open web. (Even if not, the tips on this page should still be useful to you.) That's great! But you still need to be careful that you're getting good sources, especially if you're on the open web. Luckily, the internet also makes it easier to evaluate the sources you find. Read on for some specific pointers...

Things to Consider

  • Currency - check the date of publication
    • How current should a scholarly resource be? Use what you already know about your field and topic. Is it a rapidly changing field, like many sciences? Have there been major advances or shifts since the resource was published? 
  • Authority - do the author and/or publication know what they're talking about?
    • Credentials aren't everything, but they're a good clue that an author is qualified to write/speak on a topic. Sometimes articles include a brief profile of the author; sometimes you have to look them up yourself. 
  • Accuracy - find out what other scholars think of the resource
    • If it's peer reviewed, you already know that experts in the field gave their seal of approval. (See below for more on peer review.) But even experts can get things wrong! If the resource makes a surprising or extreme claim, it's good to check for reviews or rebuttals.
  • Relevance - how does the resource fit into your research?
    • It doesn't matter how accurate the resource is if it's not relevant to your research! Check out these infographics for tips for quickly telling what a resource covers. 

Is It "Scholarly"?

What does "scholarly" mean? It generally refers to work that's the result of formal research, written by scholars in the field for other scholars. Scholarly works are usually peer-reviewed (see the box below), although the process works a little differently for books than for articles in journals. Scholarly works cite their sources thoroughly and can include bibliographies or lists of works cited, depending on the citation style used. 

Magazines and scholarly journals are different, although they sometimes cover similar ground. The main differences: peer review and citing sources!  This chart from NC State University Libraries will help you distinguish among them. 

"Grey literature" refers to literature produced by government, academia, business, and industry outside of the commercial publishing process - things like government agency reports, NGO whitepapers, dissertations, and corporate annual reports. It can involve meticulous research, but doesn't go through the same editing and peer review process that, say, journal articles do. You can still evaluate it like other sources, though! If after evaluating a piece of grey lit, you'd like to use it in your work, (1) ask your professor if they consider it an acceptable source and/or (2) check the citations for leads on other resources.

Peer Review

What's peer review? In a nutshell, experts in a field check an article that's been submitted for publication to see if it meets scholarly standards. You can watch the video below for a useful explanation - then, click on the arrows on the side for tips on searching for peer-reviewed articles in OneSearch and in some major databases. 

(Video produced by NC State University Libraries)

In OneSearch, run your search then click on the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" link on the left side to see only results from peer-reviewed journals. 

The OneSearch interface after a search has been run, with the

In an EBSCOhost database like Academic Search Premier, check the box on the left labeled "Scholarly (Peer-Reviewed) Journals".

The Academic Search Premier interface after a search has been run, with the

In a ProQuest database, you can check the box marked "Peer reviewed" before you run your search to get only peer reviewed resources back. 

A ProQuest database's interface before a search has been run, with the

Another option when searching ProQuest databases: run your search first, then use the "Peer reviewed" link on the side to filter for peer reviewed articles. 

A ProQuest database's interface after a search has been run, with the

Tips and Tricks

To find out more about a journal: If you're in one of the library's databases, you can usually click on the journal's name when you're viewing an article to learn more, including whether it's peer reviewed. For more, look through our research guide on Evaluating Journals.

To find out more about what other scholars think of a book: If you're looking at a book, chances are it's been reviewed. You can use the Book Review Index Plus database to locate reviews - search for the title and/or author, then click "GET IT" under the result(s) you're interested in to get the full text of the review. 

...or an article: With an article, looking at other works that have cited it can be helpful. Try searching for your article's title in OneSearch, then clicking on "Cited by" in the lower right corner of the result. You can skim the resources that come up or Ctrl-F within them for your article's name to see if they're citing your article approvingly or negatively. If your article doesn't come up in OneSearch, try that process on Google Scholar instead.

When looking for peer reviewed articles, remember that they're also sometimes called "peer refereed" or just "scholarly" as synonyms.