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Evaluating Scholarly and Peer Reviewed Sources: Is this source reliable?

Critically Evaluate Research Methods

Scholarly articles vary in quality and often report on new advances in research rather than the settled consensus in a field, so it is important to read them critically before accepting their conclusions at face value. As you develop your own knowledge of your discipline and its research methods (especially after you've had a research methods class!), you should begin to build a habit of asking the following questions of most articles you encounter:

  • Is the method used a reasonable way to answer the research question being asked? 
  • Does the article follow best practices for the research method? 

If you answer "no" or "yes, but" to either of those questions, it does not always mean you should not cite that article. Instead, build the following habits when you find scholarly sources whose methods you question:

  • Acknowledge any reservations you have about the source in your analysis. 
  • Make sure you have searched comprehensively to determine if a better source exists. It is often appropriate to put weaker sources in conversation with stronger ones, especially if few sources are available or if you are expected to do a thorough literature review.

Lateral Reading

In addition to evaluating the argument made in the article, it is also important to situate that argument in the context of a broader scholarly conversation, using a process known as "lateral reading." 

  1. Use Google or another search engine to search for information on the author or creator of the source. 
    • What is their background/education/experience?
    • What else have they published/created?
    • What organizations are they affiliated with?
    • What might be their purpose or motivation for creating/sharing the source?
  2. Use Google or another search engine to search for information on the publisher and journal. 
    • What type of journal is it? 
    • Who is on the editorial board? What are their expertise and reputation? 
    • What is the reputation of the journal in the field? 
      • How frequently are its articles cited by other journals? 
      • Do sources such as encyclopedias or review articles list the journal as key for the topic of the paper? 
      • Has it frequently had to retract articles
      • Does it bring attention to topics that have been historically marginalized in a field? Sometimes these publications are less renowned in a field simply because they are newer, and not because their research is of lower quality. 
  3. Trace a few of the citations provided in the original source.
    • Who or what is being cited? ​​​​​​Do these sources support the argument being advanced? 
    • Do the citations lead to other sources that appear credible?
    • Do the citations cite a wide variety of other sources? Is there bias in the types of sources cited? What function are the sources playing in supporting the argument (The BEAM framework may be helpful to answer this question.) Are those sources appropriate for the argument the article is advancing? 
    • If the article analyzes an original dataset, is that data available in a data repository? Can you reproduce the analysis? 
  4. Use a cited reference search in Google Scholar or Web of Science to see who has cited this article since it was published.
    • How do citing articles characterize the research? Did they agree with its conclusions?   
    • Note: The older this article is, the easier it will be to find citing articles. 
  5. Can you find any other sources that corroborate or dispute the information presented in the source?
    • Use a variety of search tools for this process. For example, if you started in Google Scholar, try Summon or a disciplinary database. 
    • Compare sources like review articles, encyclopedias, or books that summarize the research on a topic to your article. These sources can provide a better window into scholarly consensus on a topic than an individual research paper, but may be slow to note the significance of recent advances.  
    • Use your knowledge of research methods for the discipline to evaluate the article. Is it presenting the best evidence possible to support its argument? What other evidence should have been considered? Are its conclusions sound?