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What to look for: All Resources

How to identify appropriate sources for your paper

What to look for in any resource

Your paper is only as credible as your sources, so it is essential that you evaluate every source you use!

First: Consider whether the source is non-fiction or fiction.

Generally speaking, a non-fiction (factual/not creative) source is preferred in a research paper. Typically, a traditionally published non-fiction source such as a book, documentary, or article goes through a rigorous vetting process before it is published.

Typically, it is not advisable to use a fictional (created from imagination) source in a research paper, unless it is used to illustrate a point in your research, to explain a source of inspiration, or your paper is about that particular book, film, series, musical recording, etc.

It is possible, especially in literature, art history, film studies, or humanities-type classes, that the examination of one or more fictional resources (or elements within them) is the topic of a paper. In these situations, it is acceptable to use appropriate and relevant fiction as sources with proper citation. For example, the topic of a paper could be something like: Leadership characteristics of American presidents in books, television and film. In this paper, a selection of fictional presidents could be compared and contrasted, like Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s novel Executive Orders, the president portrayed in the television series The West Wing, and the presidents in the films Independence Day and The American President, as well as fictionalized portrayals of real presidents, such as in the book and movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Ideally, there would be non-fictional sources used as well, to support conclusions that behaviors exhibited by these fictional presidents display good leadership qualities, or not.

In the Nicolet College Library, call numbers beginning with P are fiction, except for literary criticism and author biographies. A call number beginning with anything other than P is non-fiction.

Second: Consider the topic.

Finding non-fiction materials is a good start. However, many topics are considered non-fiction, but the scientific community generally does not consider them valid at this point in time. Examples of such topics include:

  • ghosts, aliens, cryptozoology, reincarnation, past lives, magic, any other paranormal/parapsychology topics, the Mandela effect, conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxing, climate change denial, flat earth, dinosaurs didn’t really exist, etc.

If your paper is about a topic like one of these, you should talk to your instructor first before going any further in the research process.

Third: consider all of the following (CRAP criteria):

  • Currency: Determine the age of the source and whether there have been recent developments in the field since it was published. Very generally, you would look for sources not older than 10 years, (in scientific fields like medicine, technology, and engineering, no older than 3-5 years), unless you are looking specifically for historical information or perspectives.
  • Reliability: Look for evidence of thorough research and/or demonstrated expertise from the author. Examine cited sources for credibility as well. If there are no sources cited, be skeptical about that source as a source. If the source is nothing more than a collection of anonymous and/or unvetted wiki articles, then the source is no more credible than the unvetted wiki articles.

Determine the publisher. Self-published sources are likely not to have gone through the vetting process that gives scholarly credibility. Look up a corporate publisher to find out their reputation in academics and to find out about their vetting process if you can.

  • Authorship*: Determine the author of the source. If you can't tell who authored the source, be skeptical about using it. Look up the author to find out their credentials and what kind of expertise they have in the field. Find out the author’s reputation among other experts in the field. Determine if the author is affiliated any type of research institution such as a university, hospital or organization, or government agency, and the reputation of the institution among others in the field. 

*Author/authorship is used here to convey the concept of creator of both written and media sources.

  • Purpose: Is this an informational resource, or was it produced to inflame emotions or to sell a product? If it was created for any purpose other than to inform, be skeptical about using it as a source.

Examine the word choices and imagery used in the source. Informational sources will use more objective and neutral word choices and imagery that appeal to logic and reason rather than emotion. Informational sources will tend to highlight facts over discussions of opinions or beliefs. While some presentations will still cause emotional reactions due to the subject matter, an informational resource will tend to examine the subject more matter-of-factly and objectively.

Fourth: Consider if the item was found initially on social media:

Often stories and images with words circulated on social media are outdated, very heavily biased, blatantly false, or refer to an issue, problem, or situation that has been resolved or no longer exists. It is very important to fact check any story or image before accepting it as current or true. See the social media tab for more information.

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