How to do Research for College Assignments

What is Source Evaluation?

Source evaluation is the process of critically evaluating information in relation to a given purpose in order to determine if it is appropriate for the intended use.

Why Evaluate Sources?

  • Instructors expect students to use scholarly sources: using better sources often results in better grades!
  • Information can be out-of-date, inaccurate, and even purposely misleading (such as propaganda) 
  • Some forms of information, such as websites, allow anyone to contribute content or exist only to sell products or ads by generating traffic

All information, especially online content, needs critical scrutiny. Use the CRAAP test to evaluate and determine the credibility and reliability of a source:

  • The timeliness (i.e. publication date, revision history) of the information.
  • Broken links or old dates indicate a source has not been updated recently.
  • The importance of the information for your needs.
  • Consider your audience and compare with a variety of sources.
  • The originating source (author, publisher, sponsor) of the information.
  • Check for contact information and the credentials of the author.
  • The reliability (source, evidence, truthfulness) of the information.
  • Think about the source and look for evidence of bias or error.
  • The reason (teach, sell, entertain) the information exists.
  • Identify the type of information (fact or opinion) and the intent of the author.

Use the chart below to apply the CRAAP test to websites and other information sources:

This video tutorial explains how to differentiate between popular and scholarly sources and demonstrates how to use them correctly in your research and course assignments. Need help searching for and identifying peer-reviewed journal articles? Go to the How to Find Scholarly, Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles guide


Use the chart below to differentiate between scholarly/academic, trade/professional, and popular mainstream sources:

When conducting research, the ability to distinguish between primary, secondary and tertiary sources is a very useful skill:

  Definition & Common Formats: Currency, Purpose & Tone:

Provide firsthand and unfiltered information, without interpretation, analysis or evaluation:

  • Historical artifacts, diaries, records, newspapers, letters
  • Works of art and literature

Tend to come first in publication cycle; immediate to the time period and/or event(s)

Often fits in one of these categories:

  1. Subjective, first-person narration;
  2. Creative writing;
  3. Neutral, detached reporting

Comment, discuss, analyze, evaluate, and/or interpret primary, tertiary, and other secondary sources:

  • Essays and reviews
  • Peer-reviewed journal articles
  • Textbooks (may also be tertiary)

Tend to come second in publication cycle; vary from close to or far-removed from originating time period and/or event(s)

  • Tone is argumentative and analytical
  • Often builds on past and/or current discourse with aim to counter, extend, and/or supplant previous works

Provide general overviews or summaries that compile and synthesize both primary and secondary sources:

  • Encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks
  • Annotated bibliographies, indexes, chronologies

Tend to come last in publication cycle; far-removed from originating time period and/or event(s)

  • Factual, objective and concise with focus on distilling multiple sources
  • Typically has a broad, general focus and lacks any original analysis and critique