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Evaluating Academic Sources

When it comes to evaluating the quality and reliability of a source for your research, there is no "one solution fits all" checklist to follow. Here are some starting questions to consider when evaluating sources.

Is the author an expert on this topic? Check for their institutional affiliations. Google the author to learn more about their work and expertise. Check that the information discussed in the source matches the scope of their expertise. Question whose voices might be left out of the conversation.
Is the publisher reputable? Did you find this source listed in a scientific database? Explore the greater website that is hosting this source. Google the publishing organization to learn more about their reputation.
Consider the type of the source and how the information was created, revised, and shared. Check for conflict of interest statements and other unnamed biases. Is this source mean to inform, teach, sell, or persuade?
Some areas of expertise grow slowly and some change rapidly. How recently was this information published? Is there more recent information available elsewhere? How have perspectives changed over time? Are there any corrections or retraction notices on this source?
Where does the information in this source come from? Has this source been reviewed by other experts? Check the references that the author cited and investigate them further.
Does this source address your research question? Does the context of the information match your needs? Is the information at an appropriate level? Why would you choose this source instead of another?

Checking for Peer Review

When you find a research article from a web search, it may be difficult to tell whether it is peer-reviewed at first glance. Here are a few steps to figure out if an article is peer-reviewed.

To find out if a journal is peer reviewed (also known as "refereed"), you can use UlrichsWeb. Search for the journal and look for the tiny referee shirt as an indicator that it is a peer-reviewed journal. Be careful of journals with similar titles! You can search by ISSN Number to disambiguate journal titles.

Example: The Journal of the American Chemical Society is verified to be "refereed" by Ulrichs.
icon of referee shirt
Even within journals which do peer review, not every entry is a peer-reviewed article. Some scholarly journals also publish perspectives, conference notes, news stories, and other items. Look at the full text of the article you're interested in: a peer-reviewed article will show a string of dates to indicate that the article was reviewed and accepted for publication.

Example: A recent research article in the Journal of Chemical Education lists that it was Received 30 April 2021, Revised 25 September 2021, Published 11 November 2021.
Some organizations create fraudulent journals with the intention of deceiving authors and readers, which is referred to as predatory publishing. These journals may claim on their website that they use peer review when they do not. Whenever you are in doubt, investigate the journal itself by searching the journal title elsewhere (like Google or Wikipeida). See if the journal has an established history and trusted reputation among researchers in the field.

Example: Biologist and science journalist John Bohannon was able to intentionally publish nonsense research claiming that eating chocolate helps with weight loss in the predatory journal International Archives of Medicine.

Examining a Source

The Source

Gordon, C. G.; Mackey, J. L.; Jewett, J. C.; Sletten, E. M.; Houk, K. N.; Bertozzi, C. R. Reactivity of Biarylazacyclooctynones in Copper-Free Click Chemistry. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2012, 134 (22), 9199-9208. DOI: 10.1021/ja3000936

Who is the author? Are they an expert?

The corresponding author of this article is Dr. Carolyn R. Bertozzi, who is currently a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University. At the time of publication, she was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Bertozzi has an extensive history of research that has been highly cited by other scientists. She is recognized as a leader in the field of bioorthogonal chemistry. This source reports research that is within her area of expertise.

Where was this source published?

This source was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (ISSN 0002-7863), which is the flagship journal of the American Chemical Society (ACS). This journal was founded in 1879 and has an established reputation for publishing scholarly chemistry research. The professional organization that sponsors this journal (ACS) has a large membership and hosts regular conferences. This journal is verified to be refereed in UlrichsWeb. 

What is the purpose of the source?

This article has been peer reviewed, meaning that it was assessed for quality and significance by other researchers in the field. It is meant to report and share scientific research results to an audience of fellow scholars. The authors of this source declared no conflicts of interest or competing financial interest. 

When was this source created?

This article was published in 2012. It has been highly cited by other researchers, meaning it may be important reading for your project, but there are likely newer published articles available that further build upon this research. It may be worth looking at what other articles have cited this source and at more recent research from the authors.

Where can this information be verified? 

The authors included a list of references to support the research in this article, many of which can be accessed online through library databases. 

Is this the most relevant source for your needs?

You would choose to read this article if it provides relevant information to your research questions and makes sense with the context of your research. For example, if you were doing a literature review on copper-free click chemistry, this source may provide information about important compounds. If you were planning to synthesize some of these compounds in a laboratory, this source may provide laboratory protocols to follow. Depending on the context, you may need to look for updated information since this article was published.  

Evaluating a science news story or social media post? Learn more at Fake News: Science Edition.
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