Skip to main content

English 1301 - Irvin, Lennie: Finding and Evaluating a Source

How to find and evaluate sources for your research.

Authority is Constructed and Contextual

When choosing a document to support our writing, we must bring a certain amount of skepticism and always be questioning the value of our sources.  Not all sources are created equal and not all sources are worthy to be included in our work.

So how do we know what documents are worthy and valuable and which ones might be questionable in support of our arguments?

We start by:

  • reading like a detective looking for clues to an unsolved crime
  • questioning like a reporter conducting an interview  
  • looking for bias - be suspicious! Bias conveys partiality, favoritism, bigotry, preferences, preconception, and unfairness
  • considering the tone, style, level of information and assumptions made by the author about the reader


Purpose:  Understand that authority is created and based upon context.

Student Learning Activity: Evaluate a variety of sources using the 5 Ws Method.

Skills:  The activity will guide your practice of evaluating sources with a focus on:

S. 1.   Defining types of authority such as subject expertise, social position, or special experience; 

S. 2.   Recognizing that information may be packaged formally or informally and may include sources of all media types.

S.3.    Understanding the increasingly social nature of the information ecosystem where authorities actively connect with one another and sources develop over time.

Knowledge:  This activity will also help you expand the following important knowledge:

K.1  Motivation to find authoritative sources, recognizing that authority may be manifested in unexpected ways;

K.2.  Develop awareness of the importance of assessing content with a skeptical stance.

Evaluating Sources Activity

Remember:  Evaluation is a process.  No single question is enough to determine a source's usefulness.  You need to take them all into consideration.

Student Learning Activity: Evaluate a variety of sources for the ethical and logical uses of evidence using the Five W's Method.

ESSAY TOPIC:  The Women's Rights Movement and the Role of the Women's March of 2017

Directions for activity:  

  1. Around the room you will find multiple source documents or what we will call 'artifacts'.  
  2. You will be divided into groups and provided with a worksheet.  
  3. As a group you will move from one artifact to another and evaluate each artifact using the 'Five W's' Method, write notes about each artifact on your worksheet.  
  4. One member of the group may need to use the computer to check links and to research an author's credentials.
  5. After evaluating each artifact decide, as a group, whether you would feel confident in using the source for an academic research paper? Explain why or why not?
  6. Each Group will report back to the class their opinions on each artifact and whether they would feel confident using it as a source for an academic research paper. 
  7. Then, each group, will discuss which one artifact would be the "best choice" as a source for using in an academic research paper. 
  8. Share with class, through voting, which artifact was the best source material. 

Wrap Up:  Based on today's activity, individually, write a paragraph explaining to another student some of the elements to consider when evaluating a source for their research needs.

Loading ...

Five Ws Evaluation Method

WHO:  Who is the author?                    

  • Identify any credentials the author has that make him/her an authority?
  • If an individual author is not named who is the editor or sponsor?
  • If the source is a web site, is there a link to a "home page" to see who is sponsoring the page?
  • Can you detect any conflict of interest or potential bias in this author?

WHAT:  What type of document is it?           

  • Is it a primary source or secondary source document?
    • Primary sources are records that provide first-hand testimony or evidence of an event, action, topic, or time period. Primary sources are usually created by individuals who directly experience an event or topic, and record their experience through photographs, videos, memoirs, correspondence, oral histories, or autobiographies.

      Common Examples of PRIMARY Sources:
      Letters, diaries, memoirs, speeches, interviews, photographs, notes, subject files, oral histories, autobiographies, travelogues, pamphlets, newspapers, newsletters, brochures, government documents including hearings, reports and statistical data, military service records, manuscripts, archival materials, artifacts, architectural plans, artistic works, works of fiction, music scores, and sound recordings.

    • Secondary sources  summarize, interpret, analyze, or comment on information found in primary sources. Secondary sources are usually written by individuals who did not experience firsthand the events about which they are writing.

      Common Examples of SECONDARY Sources:
      Biographies, monographs, journal articles, dissertations, theses, essays and encyclopedia articles.

  • Is it an:
    • Opinion, news article, review, report, research study, popular article, scholarly article, blog post, peer-reviewed article, statistical analysis, corporate document, government document

WHEN:  When was the information published and/or updated?  

  • What is the date of publication?
  • When did the event or research being discussed in the document occur?
  • Is your topic time-sensitive so that you can only use the most updated information or is your topic more historically oriented?

WHERE:  Where was the information published? 

  • Is it published in a scholarly journal, popular magazine, encyclopedia, book, website.
  • Is the publisher a known and respected source in the discipline?
  • If the source is a web site, you can check the domain name for clues (.edu, .org, .com, .mil, .net) to determine what type of page this might be.
    • Is there an "about" or "what is" link from either the information page or the "home page" that outlines the purpose of the pages? Are they trying to sell something?

WHY: Why was the document created?                    

  • Who is the intended audience?
    • General audience
    • Specific audience
    • Educated audience
  • What is the author's purpose toward this intended audience--to inform, to persuade, to entertain, to share a point of view
  • What is the author’s desired effect upon this audience?
  • Does this purpose seem honest and trustworthy?
  • Was the author paid for his opinion by a third-party that may be considered biased?

HOW: How was it written? How was it produced?

  • How did the author gather data to prepare the artifact? Did the author:
    • gather data or information from outside sources;
    • incorporate in-text citations and a list of references; 
    • present supporting pieces of data, sources, citations, quotes, personal experience, a reliable methodology.
    • If there's not an actual "works cited," are there any internal references to other sources?
      • If yes, what kind of sources are they? Do these sources supplement the information given?
      • If links are provided, do the links work?

Information Cycle

Graphic image of the Information CycleCredit:University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Undergraduate Library. Information Cycle

Rhetorical Triangle Test


Is my document scholarly?

Three points to test your source:

  1. Scholarly author – experts, researchers, or authorities
  2. Scholarly audience – intended for an audience of researchers, academics, or professionals
  3. Scholarly purpose – to inform, educate, or share research findings

Scholarly v. Popular Articles

How can I tell the difference?
Length Longer articles, providing
in-depth analysis of topics
Shorter articles, providing
broader overviews of topics
Authorship Author usually an expert or specialist in the field, name and credentials always provided Author usually a staff writer or a journalist, name and credentials may be provided
Language/Audience Written in the jargon of the field for scholarly readers (professors, researchers or students) Written in non-technical language
for anyone to understand
Format/Structure Articles usually more structured,
may include these sections: abstract, literature review, methodology, results, conclusion, bibliography
Articles do not necessarily follow a specific format or structure
Special Features Illustrations that support the text, such as tables of statistics, graphs, maps, or photographs Illustrations with glossy or color photographs, usually for advertising purposes
Editors Articles usually reviewed and critically evaluated by a board of experts in the field
Articles are not evaluated by experts in the field, but by editors on staff
Credits A bibliography (works cited) and/or footnotes are always provided to document research thoroughly A bibliography (works cited) is usually not provided, although names of reports or references may be mentioned in the text
San Antonio College Library, 1819 Main Ave., San Antonio, TX 78212
Located in the Moody Learning Center (MLC) building, floors 2 - 5
Reference Desk: (210) 486-0554 * Send Email
Library interior & exterior photos by: Leonard Ziegler, SAC photographer

Copyright © 2015 San Antonio College