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Separating Information from Misinformation

How to Judge the Quality of Your Research Results
By Kelly Garbato

When conducting research, students tend to judge their success based on the number of relevant “hits” (or results) they get when searching. However, retrieving a large number of seemingly relevant results is only half the battle. Next, you need to evaluate these sources to be sure that they are reputable. Your research paper, article, or essay is only as good as the information it's based on - so it's in your best interests to stick to credible resources!

As you're combing through your search results, remember that there are no guarantees! Think about it: the Web gives every Joe Schmoe with a bit of 'Net savvy the opportunity to publish and distribute his work, regardless of its quality or truthfulness. There is no standard that Web authors must adhere to - and the end result is that there's a wealth of fallacious and even malicious information to be found on the Internet. Even academic databases - those produced and maintained by information specialists and provided by your library - are subject to mistakes and biases! When reading through your sources, it's imperative that you critically evaluate every word - even if the book or article looks scholarly at first glance.

Always regard your sources with a touch of skepticism. Even if they are from reputable news outlets or scholarly journals, they could contain mistakes or falsehoods, or even be skewed by their authors' own personal biases. Just because something is written in print or available on the Internet, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth.

Here's a list of questions to ask of each of your sources. Carefully evaluate all your resources, including those found in academic databases, journals, and newspapers. If you are suspicious of a particular book or article, either throw it out entirely or address your concerns in your discussion. When in doubt, do not be afraid to turn to your professor for guidance!

Traditionally, there are five criteria than are often used to evaluate print resources: accuracy, authority, objectivity, coverage, and currency. These can be adapted and applied to online sources as well those in print.

1. Accuracy

  • Does the book, article or web site contain a number of spelling and/or grammatical errors?
  • Does the source provide footnotes, endnotes, or citations, as well as a reference list or bibliography? If so, are the author's resources reputable?
  • Does the author make any outlandish or inaccurate statements or claims?
  • Are the author's views consistent with those you have already found in the literature? If not, does the author offer documented evidence that supports his perspective?
  • Do the author's conclusions follow logically from the rest of her statements?
  • If you are evaluating a research article, does the author describe his methodology and results?

2. Authority

  • Does the author of the document plainly identify herself?
  • What are the author's credentials? Are they clearly stated, or did you have to search to find them?
  • Do the author's credentials include a degree? If so, is it in the field in which the author is writing about? Was he author's degree granted by a reputable university, or a "degree mill"?
  • Is the author affiliated with an academic institution?
  • Does the author provide his contact information?
  • Who is the intended audience of the paper - the author's peers or the general public?
  • In the case of web sites, what is the top-level domain?

3. Objectivity

  • What individual, group, or organization sponsored the publication of this source?
  • Is the sponsor of this research/publication clearly listed? Is its background and mission divulged?
  • In the case of journals, is it a refereed journal that has a peer review process?
  • Was your source written to sell something or support a particular point of view?
  • In the case of web sites, is the site a commercial, academic, or personal one?
  • Are the links contained on web sites appropriate for the material?

4. Coverage

  • Is the topic of the book, article, or site covered in detail, or is it just a superficial review?
  • Does the author seem aware of all the pertinent research in this area?
  • Does the source cover the same time period that you're researching?

5. Currency

  • When was the source written and/or published?
  • If it's an older source, have there been many major developments in the field since it was written that would render it outdated?
  • If you're evaluating a book, has it been revised? If so, do you have the newest edition?
  • If you're researching a current topic, is this the most up-to-date resource you could find?
  • If you're evaluating a web site, can you tell when it was last updated? Does it have many "broken" or invalid links?

You should ask these questions of each of your sources. Even academics aren't immune to personal biases, which can in turn affect their work. When used consistently and diligently, this checklist will help you weed out any suspect sources - and produce a quality paper yourself!

Copyright Kelly Garbato, 2005

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