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Library Researcher Series: Evaluation

A drop-in workshop series offered by the University Library in Fall and Winter terms.

Session Description: Evaluation of Sources

Techniques for evaluating information sources. This session was offered during the 2012/2013 academic year.

Primary Sources

Primary sources of information are original materials that often convey new ideas, discoveries, or information. These sources originate from the time period under study. Examples of primary sources include:

  • original research studies (often in the form of journal articles in peer-reviewed publications), also called empirical studies (e.g. psychology)
  • patents, technical reports
  • original documents such as diaries, letters, emails, manuscripts, lab data/notes
  • newspaper articles from the time period under study
  • autobiographies, first-person accounts, case studies
  • artifacts and archival material such as official documents, minutes recorded by government agencies and organizations, photographs, coins, fossils, natural specimens
  • works of art such as literature, music, architecture, or painting

TIP:  What is considered primary, secondary, or tertiary information may vary according to your field of study. When in doubt, ask your professor.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources of information are based on primary sources. They are generally written at a later date and provide some discussion, analysis, or interpretation of the original primary source. Examples of secondary sources include:

  • review articles or analyses of research studies about the same topic (also often in peer-reviewed publications)
  • biographies, reviews, or critiques of an author
  • analyses of original documents or archival material

    Tertiary Sources

    Tertiary sources of information are based on a collection of primary and secondary sources. Examples of tertiary sources include:

    • textbooks (sometimes considered as secondary sources)
    • dictionaries and encyclopedias
    • manuals, guidebooks, directories, almanacs
    • indexes and bibliographies

    How to Differentiate Primary and Secondary Sources

    This video by the Cooperative Library Instruction Project defines and demonstrates the differences between primary and secondary sources in several different scholarly disciplines. It includes a quiz so that you can apply what you have learned.


    Scholarly books:

    • Published by a university press, or a scholarly society, or an academic series by a trade publisher (e.g. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series).
    • The author often has an academic affiliation and is a recognized authority on a topic (e.g. a professor at a university).
    • The work includes an extensive bibliography or list of works cited and an index to topics covered.

    Popular books:

    • Published by a trade publisher such as Random House and intended for a broad audience, not just those studying in that discipline.
    • The author may have a corporate or business affiliation instead of an academic affiliation.
    • The author may include a bibliography and index, but they are less extensive than for scholarly books.

    TIP:  In academic research there is a clear preference for refereed or scholarly material. However, there is also a role for non-scholarly material since it often reflects contemporary thought and is popular. Also, there may be little scholarly material available on a given topic. If you use sources such as newspapers or popular magazines, clearly point out that your information reflects a "commonly accepted position" but is "difficult to verify or refute".

    Journal Articles

    In academic research considerable emphasis is placed upon using scholarly materials. You may also see the terms academic, peer reviewed or refereed used to describe scholarly materials.

    Scholarly, academic, refereed, or peer-reviewed journal articles:

    • In peer-reviewed journals (also called refereed), the articles are reviewed by other experts in the same field of study before they are accepted for publication.
    • In scholarly journals (also called academic), the articles are written by academics but the articles are not always reviewed by experts in the topic the author is writing about before publication. 
    • In the article, the author's credentials are listed and are relevant to the subject of the article.
    • A bibliography or citation list is included at the end of the article, allowing you to trace the information on which the author has based the paper.
    • Scholarly, academic and peer reviewed, refereed journals are often published by a university press or academic association.
    • The intended audience is professionals, researchers, or students in the discipline; and the language is often technical, requiring prior knowledge of the field.

    TIP:  When you are searching a journal database: Look for peer-reviewed or refereed in the record for the article. Some journal databases allow you to limit your search to this type of publication OR search for the journal title in to see if the journal is refereed.
    Popular magazine articles:

    • Popular magazines and newspapers are found on newsstands.
    • Popular magazine articles are written for the general public.
    • The author may be a staff writer or journalist, who may not have an academic background in the subject matter.
    • Bibliographies or works cited are rarely included at the end of an article or within the text of an article.

    TIP:  This page produced by UBC Library provides a useful comparison of the differences between scholarly and popular articles. Popular articles are usually considered secondary literature (one exception might be in the discipline of History).

    Popular vs. Scholarly Sources

    This video by the Cooperative Library Instruction Project is intended to teach students the differences between popular and scholarly articles. It includes a quiz to test your knowledge.

    How to Evaluate Popular Internet Resources

    This video by the Cooperative Library Instruction Project teaches students how to effectively evaluate sources that they find on the Internet, including how to find a webpage's author, its potential biases, objectivity vs personal opinion, accuracy of sources, and currency of information.


    The PowerPoint presentation that was used in this module is posted below. Please note: that the images have been removed due to copyright restrictions.

    Beware of Scam and Predatory Online Journals

    Unfortunately, there are some "journals" that mascarade as legitimate open access publications but are in fact fraudulent scams. They exploit the author-pays model of open access publishing for their own profit. 

    Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, maintains lists of these "predatory" publishers and journals at his blog Scholarly Open Access.

    Please check these lists to ensure you do not publish your research in an unreputable journal!

    Please check the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) for a list of reputable open access journals.

    Journal Article Retractions

    Articles published in reputable journals are sometimes retracted after publication. Retractions can be made for many reasons including: errors made in the article, or fraud/misconduct on the part of the author(s).

    Retraction Watch is a blog set up to monitor and publicise articles that have been retracted - and the reasons behind the retraction.

    Scholarly vs. Popular: Compare and Contrast

    In this exercise, please work with the people beside you.  I would like you to compare and contrast the three different types of sources that I have handed out. Based on the layout of the journal, an individal article and a quick scan of the content, make comments on the following components:

    • Authority - authority is dependent on bias, the creditanials of the author or agency and their reputation
    • Accuracy - evidence is built upon trust (I know what I am talking about), credibility (use of scholarly references to support and enhance your research) and context.
    • Identify and Analyze - how is the information used and identified within my discipline?