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Literature searching: How to find and use databases: 5. Evaluating sources

An introduction to undertaking literature searches. Planning your search, selecting search terms and constructing searches. Evaluating material you find, and recording and referencing the sources you use.

Evaluating sources you find

Once you’ve undertaken searches and found results, evaluate the material and information you have found. Just because you have found it doesn’t mean it is high quality – think about who the author is, when it was written, is it biased and is it well-researched. Some of the information in abstract records can help with this.

Questions to ask when evaluating a source

  • Who wrote it? What expertise, authority, qualifications or experience does the author have? What else have they written? Is the publisher an academic publisher or a recognised institution? Is an article published in a peer-reviewed journal?
  • When was the work published? Are there more recent versions or editions? Has research moved on since publication?
  • Where was the work published? Where was it written? Which geographical areas or jurisdictions is it applicable to?
  • Why was it written? Is there any bias apparent? Does the author or publisher have a vested interest in the research? Is any bias declared? (That there is bias in a document is not necessarily a reason to dismiss it – but it is something to take into consideration in evaluating the work.)
  • What is the content of the source? Is it relevant to your research topic? Is it accurate and well-researched? Does it contain appropriate references and is the methodology clear and reliable?

Peer review

Articles in peer-reviewed journals are subject to a process of academic evaluation designed to maintain standards of quality in research. Database services often provide an option to limit results to peer-reviewed journals.

Peer-reviewed articles are generally regarded as being of higher academic quality than non-peer-reviewed articles.

Tools to help with evaluation

When making evaluative judgments, abstracting and indexing databases can help you by providing supplementary information about a document. This means that you can often make an initial judgment about the value of the source before taking the step of accessing and reading the full-text.

An abstract record may provide not only a brief summary of the document, but also information about:

  • the author's affiliation (any institution or organisation the author is associated with)
  • the date of publication
  • the location (either where the document was published or the geographical focus of the text)
  • the main subjects and keywords associated with the document
  • whether published in a scholarly or peer-reviewed publication

In addition, abstract records may provide citation information:

  • how many publications the document you have found cites

and, importantly:

  • how many times the document you have found has been cited.

Many subject-specific databases provide abstract records and citation information.

However, key multi-disciplinary abstracting and indexing databases providing citation information include: