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Research Guides

How do I evaluate my search results?


How do I...evaluate my search results?

So you’ve started your research in the library catalog or your choice article database.  You have a great list of results but now what?  How do you navigate through your results list to find the best resources for your project?  This tutorial will walk you through the types of resources you might find in your results list and will help you identify when these resources would be the most useful.

The first thing to remember is that the library catalog and article databases are not like Google.  The first item that shows up in your results list may not always be the most relevant to your topic.  You may need to scroll through your results list to find the best resource for your project.  Once you find a great resource, remember to use subject headings to find more items like this.

When starting your research, ask yourself:
1.  When was the source published and how does this affect its usefulness for your purpose?
2.  What type of audience is the author addressing, specialized or general and how does this impact your use of the source?
3.  How extensively does the source cover the topic?  Is the information appropriate for your project?  Is it either too simple or too complex?  Too broad or too specific?   Let’s take a closer look at each type of resource to see where it falls.

Sometimes a source will indicate that it is a “review”.  Other times you’ll need to dig a little deeper to determine the item is a review.  Reviews of books and media can be helpful to give you an overview of what the item is about, give background on the author, and will sometimes identify strengths and weaknesses of the work.  These can be helpful in determining if the item will be a useful source for your paper.  If it looks good, search for the item by title in the library catalog to find out if it is available in the library.  Unless your assignment specifically calls for book reviews, it is best to locate the item itself to use in your project.

Journal and magazine articles have a specific focus and present the most current information.  There are three categories of article publications: scholarly or peer-reviewed journals, popular magazine, and trade publications.

Scholarly or peer-reviewed articles are often indicated as such in the library catalog and article databases.  These articles are written for scholars with terminology related to the field.  They are reviewed by a panel of scholars in the field for accuracy. Scholarly articles general come with footnotes and or references at the end of the article.  For more information on scholarly or peer-reviewed articles, please see our tutorial on “what is a scholarly journal article?

Popular magazine articles are written with a more general audience in mind.  These articles are reviewed by a single editor.  References may or may not be included at the close of the article.

Trade publications contain industry specific information, written by people who work in that particular industry for others who work in the industry.  Articles from trade publications are also vetted by a single editor.

Books are great sources for a broader look at an issue.  Chapters of books or book indexes can also be used to find information on a specific topic as well so if you’re having trouble finding information on your topic, sometimes broadening your search terms and looking at books can help.  Books generally have a longer publication cycle than articles and thus may not be as current as articles.

Reference sources such as encyclopedias are a great source of information to get you started on your research.  Reference sources are written by subject experts and are helpful to consult before starting your research to get background information on your topic and keywords for your searches.

Remember, as you go through your results list consider:
1. When was the source published?
2.  What type of audience is the author addressing, specialized or general?
3. How extensively does the source cover the topic?  
These questions will help you determine how useful the resources is for your project.  

If you still have questions, click on the “ask us” link to email, chat with or text a librarian.

Critical Evaluation of Resources

Not all resources will be suitable or appropriate for your research. To help you determine whether or not to include a resource consider the following:

  • Scope. What is the breadth of the book, article, or other material? Is it a general overview or more specific and focused?
  • Audience. Who is the intended audience for this source? It is too technical? Too elementary?
  • Timeliness. When was this source published or updated (in the case of a Web site)?
  • Scholarly vs. Popular. Scholarly resources are written by experts for experts. These sources are peer reviewed*, have extensive bibliographies, and often contain areas for further research.
  • Authority. What are the academic credentials of the author? What has he/she written?
*Peer Review

Peer review is a process whereby a group of experts in the field review an article for content, scholarly soundness, and academic value before it is accepted for publication. Note that this process is different than in-class peer review, in which students read and critique each other's papers.

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