ENGL 101
English Composition I
Home Page >> Information Sheets >> Evaluating Sources

One of the most difficult aspects of college level writing for students is realizing that they are writing college level papers. The sources that you have used in the past will most likely not be acceptable anymore. As indicated in the Finding Sources Information Sheet, a public or high school library may not be able to provide the proper level of information, nor should they be expected to. This doesn't mean that they WON'T, just that a student shouldn't expect that they will.

It is the writer's responsibility to make sure that the source that they are trusting for information is deserving of that trust. This is true of ALL sources, not just online sources. There are several specific elements that the writer needs to think about when evaluating whether or not a source is appropriate for a college level paper. (remember that a source might be perfectly appropriate for general reading or information purposes, but NOT for a college level paper)

Credentials - check the author's credentials. Read the dustcover on a book. Look at the start of a magazine for a contributor's page that might indicate what an author's credentials are. You want to find sources who are experts in their field. Many common magazines and newspapers are written by journalists who go from story to story and simply repeat what they find, rather than offering up the style of analysis that an expert can add to a discussion. Credentials are not just academic degrees, by the way. Someone who's a master angler would be a good source for a fishing subject, for example. An article on makeovers by a cosmetologist with 20 years experience works, too.

Level of writing - Not surprisingly, professional and academic quality material is usually written at a higher level than material intended for a general audience. The typical American reader reads at an 8th grade level. Thus, mass market publications like Ladies' Home Journal, Seventeen, Details, etc. write their articles at a level that is usually inappropriate for a college level paper. Articles written at an academic level will be difficult to read until you get more used to the language and style. However, that difficulty does NOT mean that you should avoid them.

Sources and Sponsors - Does your source cite their sources? Do they indicate where and when that information came from? The more specific the information's citation, the more believable and acceptable it is. Information on cancer from a National Institute for Health brochure or website is going to be more acceptable than information from Joe Doofus' homepage or your Uncle Fred the plumber. When a source gives you statistics, do they indicate when and where those statistics were obtained?

Internet sources - Special attention needs to be paid to Internet sources. A book or magazine is the work of a committee -- many hands go into writing, editing, and publishing that information, and so it has to meet the credibility checks of many readers. Anybody can put up a website. Thus, the suspicion towards an Internet source is very high until and unless the writer can determine the credibility of the page's author and information. A webpage that does not list who created it, when they created it, or what their credentials or affiliation are is like finding a piece of paper laying in the street and using it for a source.